Friday, September 28, 2012

Multitasking in class

An article in Faculty Focus caught my attention a couple of days ago, Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t. I find the whole multitasking concept as tiresome as digital natives and dividing up humanity in tidy generations (X, Y, Z whatever) but this article raises more questions than it answers. It refers to several academic studies showing how students who multitask
retained less from a lecture than those who had no distractions.

"With easy access to all sorts of technology, students multitask. So do lots of us for that matter. But students are way too convinced that multitasking is a great way to work. They think they can do two or three tasks simultaneously and not compromise the quality of what they produce. Research says that about 5% of us multitask effectively. Proof of the negative effects of multitasking in learning environments is now coming from a variety of studies."

While I agree that it's good to burst the bubble that people can work effectively whilst multitasking it's interesting that nearly all the studies look at multitasking during lectures. Why do people multitask during a lecture? Since it's mostly one-way communication students often switch off and are easily distracted. Whether they get distracted by checking Facebook, web sites, games etc or resort to analogue distractions such as doodling, writing letters, reading the paper or solving a crossword makes no difference. This isn't a new phenomenon at all but computers and mobiles just offer more enticing distractions.

Any situation where students or colleagues are forced to sit passively listening for long periods will cause many to switch off. If you're not actively involved in the session you will check your messages and news and if you don't have a computer handy you will start to daydream or plan a future event. This has nothing to do with multitasking. I'd like to see studies that reveal how little multitasking takes place when students are fully involved in a learning situation and are taking responsibility for their learning.

People don't multitask simply because the distractions are available. They multitask when the current activity is not sufficiently interesting and they have no active role to play.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Remote control

There have always been people who offer to write your essays or assignments for you at a price. It's inevitable that such services will now thrive on line and it's no surprise to read in Inside Higher Ed this week an article called Paying for an A. It highlights web services like We take your classes that offer to do your online courses for you while you concentrate on more interesting activities.

In the past such services offered to write a single assignment for you whereas now they can take the whole course. It's not cheap and is probably not an option for the vast majority of students but with so many online courses available today there must be plenty where identity checks are less stringent than they should be. Instead of being outraged and deciding that online education is wide open for cheats we should maybe look a little deeper at this type of scam and what it really says about education.

If you can let someone else do the course for you then the provider has definitely got serious quality issues to deal with. The article in Inside Higher Ed gives examples of colleges who have quite rigorous security checks on online students to ensure that the right person is answering the questions. Random questions, video sessions, bank-style personal security log-ins and biometrics may all feature in online learning before long. However we also have to look at the way many online courses are designed. Courses that are based on the transfer of information and are heavily content-based tend to have examination forms that lend themselves to cheating. The greater the interaction between teacher and student and between students the harder it gets to cheat like this. According to Kyle Johnson, an independent higher ed consultant:

“What kind of experience are we providing for students if someone is able to take an entire class for a student and we never figure it out from the interaction? At a pedagogical level, that’s my concern. Are we really just dumping information at them so someone can come in and take a couple of quizzes and they’re done?”

Two conclusions from this case then. We need to move from linear, content-based courses to collaborative, task-based courses where assessment comes from successful completion of projects and where networking and dialogue make cheating extremely difficult. We also need to find better ways of checking identity online and maybe more complex log-ins as described in the article may be part of the solution.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gonna sit right down and write myself a letter

We probably write more today than ever before but one of the problems of today's non-stop flow of communication is that it tends to be immediate, spontaneous and transitory. There may be many great thoughts in there but they are drowned in a sea of trivia. One art that seems to have all but died is that of letter-writing. The letters of great writers, politicians and thinkers are still published and studied as literary works but this element will be missing when future generations study our times. Who will publish an author's collected tweets or selected Facebook updates? The question of how to store such communication for the future has not been resolved.

I was intrigued therefore to read an article in Edudemic: Lettrs Encourages Thoughtful Digital Writing And A Slower Communications Movement. A new service called lettrs enables you to start storing and writing real letters again. As you can see in the film below, the aim of lettrs is to encourage more lengthy and meaningful writing and combining the analogue world of the letter with the benefits of digital storage and flexibility. One function is the ability to scan and upload your favourite letters from the past that may be stored in a shoebox or drawer at home. These can be uploaded to your virtual shoebox on lettrs where they can be stored in privacy or you can share them with friends or even make them publically available on your virtual fridge.

There is already a large number of public letters out there and you can reply to them and start a discussion or simply use them as models for your own letters. Some people have shared letters from family members that go back over 100 years and can be fascinating reading. Another function is the ability to write letters to loved ones that are stored and delivered at a future date, even in years from now. This all assumes of course that lettrs is a service that will survive in the long term and that is probably the weakness in the concept since we have seen many social media services disappear overnight in the last few years.

The Edudemic article focuses on how schools can use lettrs to revive the art of letter-writing in a meaningful way. Schools all over the world are invited to participate in the revival of this important but threatened art.

"The pilot was very well received by the school but unusually popular with the students who were exposed to the timeless need and craft of letter writing, even in their digitally enabled world. A larger program is being launched at the school with a “letters to veterans” campaign this Fall.

lettrs also plans a larger campaign to “save letters” at schools across the country as part of its slower communications movement, encouraging kids to think about what they write, and take the time to impact the life of another person through the power, craft, and timeless tradition of a letter.

People from 60 different countries have signed up on lettrs to bring letters back, just a little differently. Interested schools can contact to discuss a correspondence campaign for students grades 6-12."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Don't shoot the piano-player

Copy Find Paste by shakakahnevan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  shakakahnevan

There's a steady stream of headlines about cheating in education. It's mostly cases of plagiarism and an underlying tone in many of the reports is that this is rising due to the use of computers in schools and universities. We bemoan today's cut-and-paste culture and many are increasingly sceptical of online examination. It's easy to blame technology for the increase in plagiarism but you seldom read about the technology that detects the cheaters. Is plagiarism really on the rise or are we getting better at discovering it?

Back in the good old days when I went to university I suspect that cheating was just as frequent, if not more so. Today a teacher can use anti-plagiarism software to check a student essay but in the past the teacher had to be very sharp to detect any signs of cheating. A clever student could certainly cut and paste from old essays and more obscure journal articles and run very little risk of being detected.

We regularly read about politicians, business people, celebrities and sports stars who cheat and cut corners to win the big deals and honours. Therefore the idea that education would be any different is absurd. If there are material rewards at stake then some people will be tempted to cheat. The greater the rewards the greater the temptation. It's not the net that causes people to cheat, we've been good at that for centuries.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Enter the LOOC

Look up! by n0nick, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  n0nick

The various forms of more or less free and open education that are uncomforatbly arranged under the term MOOC are constantly evolving and twisting into new forms. I have previously noted the need to adopt a new terminology for the different educational models that are emerging since the term MOOC does not fit all of them. In the past couple of weeks a few new interesting developments have taken place adding new flavours to the mix.

First, Lisa M. Lane has announced that she no longer wishes her open courses to be considered as MOOCs since the term has becomne so misused and misunderstood - see her blog post You Say MOOC, We Don’t (Anymore). Her open online class, Program for online teaching, is a course with a set syllabus and schedule and not an arena for experienced MOOCers or researchers interested in the MOOC phenomenon. It's not even massive and participation is limited.

"We are just an online class. If you’d like to join us, read the textbook, follow the syllabus, and post accordingly, you are heartily welcome. If you want to use us as a venue for your creative development as a networked individual and eschew the class structure and intention, I’d prefer you not join us in the class and I’ll happily interact with you in my networks (because I am a networked individual also and I love your ideas)."

Another development in a similar vein is reported by Inside Higher EdMOOCs' Little Brother. The University of Maine at Presque Isle have launched an interesting new twist to the MOOC formula in the shape of a LOOC (Little Open Online Course). The concept is called the UMPI OpenU Project and involves allowing a linited number of non-paying online students to participate in the university's regular courses. The registered students and non-paying students work through the course together and all receive the full attention of the tutors. The difference is that the non-paying students get no academic credits at the end. However they can decide to register for the course during a limited period and become eligible for credits. If not they can still qualify for credit hours of prior learning.

As with Lane's course, participation is restricted (2-7 non-paying students per course) and the course is a far cry from the original network-based MOOCs. The intention is to let students try out a course in the hope that they will register as "real" students later on, either during the free course or afterwards. Only by registering can you convert your course into the hard currency of academic credits. The initiative is primarily aimed at students in the region and there are no ambitions to go global or massive.

With new variations on the theme appearing almost weekly I suspect it won't be too many days before I write again about MOOCs. But please let's find some new terminology, preferably not in the form of more acronyms.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Simulation for teachers

Iavante operating theatre. CC BY-SA Alastair Creelman
As part of the EFQUEL Innovation Forum we visited Iavante, an extremely impressive simulation centre for training medical staff and students in emergency situations. The centre had clinics, operating theatres, treatment rooms and waiting rooms where students and hospital staff could realistically practice realistic emergency situations with the help of sophisticated computer controlled dummies and real life actors. They even had a street where car accident scenarios could be re-enacted as well as a mock living room for emergency treatment in the home. All these rooms had cameras for filming the simulation from all angles for later analysis. This type of facility is of course very expensive but this type of training can save real lives later since the staff will be able to make mistakes in the simulation and get the chance to improve through practice and analysis.

Teachers are not involved in such life and death situations but it struck me that simulation training could save a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering in the classroom. Student teachers are often thrown in at the deep end and find themselves in front of classes of pupils who do not react in the ideal way no matter how pedagogically sound the student’s lesson plan may be. Students seldom get the chance to work out strategies for dealing with difficult classroom situations. The first experience is when it’s for real and of course there is a high risk that the situation will not be dealt with in a professional way. This can easily lead to students losing confidence in themselves and sometimes to dropping out of the course completely.

That’s why I was particularly interested in another session at the conference from a project called SimAULA. They have produced a computer simulation for trainee teachers to help them deal with difficult classroom situations. The simulation uses avatars in different types of classroom. The teacher can choose different classroom layouts to suit different pedagogical approaches and can plan the lesson using a wide variety of variables. The classes react in unpredictable ways and the students can try different tactics to deal with the situations that occur.

"SimAULA will setup a virtual practicum in the form of a three-dimensional, online world adapted in the context of teaching-learning in school. Both active teachers and teachers-to be will interact with avatars, develop lesson plans, and teach in the virtual classrooms. In order to provide interesting and effective learning activities, this project will focus on the pedagogical side based on the knowledge of teachers and pedagogic and psychology experts to define the behaviour model of the virtual students and create simulations and situations that are both pedagogically and educational sound."

A simulation like this not only gives students the chance to test different strategies but also plenty of scope for group discussion and reflection with the teacher afterwards. Computer simulation in teacher training offers the chance for students to make mistakes and learn without the stress of interacting with real classes. SimAULA show what can be done in this field and I'm sure more advanced and sophisticated simulations for teachers are on their way.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Quotes from EFQUEL Innovation Forum

Granada CC BY-SA Alastair Creelman
It's always hard to sum up a conference full of meetings, presentations, discussions and impressions. As one of the organizers of last week's EFQUEL Innovation Forum in Granada I was not always able to concentrate on all the sessions but I did manage to pick up a nice selection of quotes from our main speakers. Here are my favourites in no particular order:

“You can’t nail jelly to the wall”
Rory McGreal (Athabasca University) on the difficulties of defining the constantly shifting field of open education. 

“Most intellectual property is neither intellectual nor property”
Rory McGreal

"In the near future most students at university will be lifelong learners rather than traditional young students"
Tony Bates

"You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs"
Tony Bates on the future of higher education

"Traditional universities that don't recognise the move towards disaggregation will/might go the way of Kodak"
Rory McGreal

"Effective elearning means accepting loss of control"
Stephan Atsou

"Students coming out of high school aren't good at online learning"
Tomy Bates

"Resources are not courses. Courses are a pedagogical process"
Graham Attwell

"Learning environments have moved out of the educational establishment"
Graham Attwell

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Peer reviewed teaching

Peer Review by AJC1, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  AJC1

In a discussion at the EFQUEL Innovation Forum in Granada this week we talked about the difficulties of creating a sharing culture in education. Teachers are traditionally expected to be self-sufficient; creating their own courses, managing their classes and writing their own course material. The idea of sharing your material with other teachers is still viewed with suspicion and sometimes even hostility. Letting other teachers and students see your material or watch your lessons and then provide feedback is the exception rather than the rule.

Let’s contrast this private and closed practice with established academic research practice. Research is constantly subjected to peer review and must be thoroughly referenced and justified. Once published you can expect critical review and debate around your conclusions. Isn’t it strange that the rules for research are not applied in the equally academic discipline of teaching? Why are learning resources hidden away on teachers’ hard drives or in desk drawers rather than being made accessible and subject to peer review and open for reuse?

The arguments for opening up educational and making resources open and freely available should focus on enabling a peer review system for teaching and learning. If courses are more open then students will be able to interact with other experts and lessen the dependency on one teacher whose view will inevitably be limited. If material is open it is reviewed and rated by students and teachers. The best material will be recommended, enhanced and reused. Poor material will often get feedback for improvement or at worst be ignored. The same goes for recorded lectures. We create a dynamic quality assurance system built around open discussion. Other more academic quality criteria can of course also be applied to the process but the principle is that openness can lead to higher quality.

Opening up our teaching for review and criticism is not a revolutionary idea. It is simply applying the rigour of research review to the field of teaching which for too long has been allowed to hide from public view. If we want to improve the quality of education, classroom or online, then we must dare to share.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Computers replace instructors, not teachers

CC BY-NC Some rights reserved by btobetun
"Teachers who can be replaced by computers deserve to be." This often quoted statement leads into an excellent article by Tony Bates, My summer paranoia: computers will replace teachers in higher education. The present expansion of content-based MOOCs from EdX, Coursera and co point to an increasing automation of course delivery and even assessment. This leads some people to draw the conclusion that the teacher's role is threatened and others see great opportunities for cost-cutting in higher education.

However Bates points out an essential distinction between instruction/lecturing and teaching. The delivery of information in the form of lectures can easily be recorded and offered on the net. Tests based on checking knowledge of facts can also be automated very effectively and you can then offer a fully online automated course. However the missing ingredient is actual teaching; inspiring, guiding, giving feedback, advising, providing context and all the other less tangible skills that lead to real learning.

"It is very hard to replicate the complexity of a skilled teacher who has to deal with many different variables and factors in real time. It is not just about processing speed and data management, but also about building relationships with students, making intuitive judgments, and being able to handle qualitative issues such as beliefs, values, and the personal feelings of students. Computers are not good at this."

If education was really only about learning and remembering information then we can easily automate it and offer it to the world on demand. That's what's happening today with the growth of online courses. That can work for self-motivated learners with good study skills but does not work for the majority who need guidance, motivation and assistance. That's where teaching comes in and these are not skills that will be automated any time soon. The teacher's role is more important than ever as long as we move away from confusing teaching with lecturing. The internet does not replace the teacher but offers teachers a chance to teach students in new ways. As usual it is not a case of either ... or ... but using computers wisely to enhance learning.