Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Social anonymity

178/365 One small step for essay kind by stuartpilbrow, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by stuartpilbrow

Anonymity on the net is a complicated question. Anonymous hate messages plague discussion boards and comment sections and an increasing number of news media are forcing all commentators to log in with a credible identity in an attempt to block the flood of hate, prejudice and offensive comments. Anonymity is blamed for the spread of net-hate and net-bullying and the reasoning goes that if people are forced to reveal their identity they will moderate their behaviour.

However, what about people who want to discuss matters where revealing identity would be dangerous, as in countries with censorship and political repression, or when you need to step away from your public web profile to discuss more freely than is possible on say Facebook? There's a lot of pressure on Facebook to present a positive, idealistic and highly flattering image of ourselves and it's not a good idea to reveal your weaknesses there. Sometimes we really need to discuss matters that simply don't fit into the tidy, happy and ever upbeat world of Facebook. Maybe you're depressed, worried about family matters, scared, insecure or just downright angry and you don't want your friends and family to see your deepest fears. Sometimes you need to be anonymous.

A new social network called Social number provides an anonymous alternative where you can discuss freely without revealing your identity. According to an article on CNNThe social network where no one knows your name, you are given a random number when you sign up and your identity cannot be traced. Then you can join any of the active discussion groups or start one of your own. It is a social network with all the usual features- minus the photo, profile and name. You have no idea who you're discussing with and so gender and nationality become irrelevant. The network is monitored both by organisers and by members and any offensive behaviour results in expulsion. According to the article and what I can see it manages to keep things relatively clean and even if you're free to rant and complain you can't cross the border into offensive behaviour. Maybe we all need an oasis of anonymity to escape from our digital identity for a while.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Breaking up is hard to do

We often base our calls for a better use of technology in education on the grounds that students are demanding change. Since they are mostly experienced users of computers, mobiles, social media and gaming they will naturally want to use these technologies and tools in school or university. There is of course a degree of truth here but it's not unusual to see reports of students demanding more lectures and classroom teaching rather than online delivery as well as preferring textboooks to net-based resources. Sometimes the students are more traditional and conservative than the teachers, despite their dependence on technology outside education.

This paradox is described by June Breivik (@junebre on Twitter) in a blog post in Norwegian, Er vi skoleblinde? Hvorfor vil digitalt innfødte ha bøker i skolen?  (Are we school-blind? Why do digital natives want textbooks in school?). Use Google translate to get an English version. June sees the problem as one of deep-rooted tradition where society's view of education is based on a number of non-negotiable concepts. We define education and especially school as follows (slightly paraphrased from original article):
  • Learning is hard work
  • Learning is not fun and games
  • Learning takes place in a school between 08.00 - 16.00 on weekdays
  • Homework helps learning
  • The teacher is the most important factor for learning
  • Learning can be planned and structured
  • Textbooks and subjects
  • Classrooms in schools
  • The teacher has the knowledge
  • Theory and practice don't mix
  • Examination is evidence that learning has taken place
These "rules" are so deeply ingrained even in the minds of pupils/students that anything that challenges them is viewed with great skepticism. All the metaphors for learning are rooted in this model: classroom, desk, blackboard, lectern etc. This explains why the most successful applications of technology in education have been where it simply offers a digital equivalent of the above; for example the popularity of recorded lectures and learning management systems. More challenging uses of technology such as virtual worlds, gaming and peer learning are seldom accepted other than in temporary projects and research initiatives and are often met by calls to get back to basics.

We have the opportunity to radically change our approach to education and learning but somehow we can't escape the gravitational pull of the classroom. Junes conclusion is that maybe we need to accept that changing such ingrained traditional will take longer than some of us would like. We maybe need to give the process time but not be afraid to experiment and dare to be innovative. At the same time we need to create a culture of innovation and the insight that some experiments will work and some won't. But we learn by failing and being allowed to fail. Learn and build.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Open education - drop in rather than drop out

water drop by Greencolander, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Greencolander

A common criticism of the current wave of more or less open courses is that there is a high drop-out rate with sometimes only 10-20% of students completing the course. In the traditional education system this is seen as a sign of abject failure but should we apply the same principles in judging the impact of open education? Does it really matter who completes the course or not since the motivation for studying via MOOCs and suchlike is not to gain academic credits but simply to learn. If only part of the MOOC is relevant to your current interests you will study that part and then move on. This is not a case of dropping out but more like dipping into a good book to read the parts that interest you.

This is well argued by Donald Clark in a post called MOOCs: ‘dropout’ a category mistake, look at ‘uptake’? It all depends how we view the MOOC movement. If we see MOOCs as part of the traditional credit-based system for students who want degrees then they do not work very well. However as an arena for lifelong learning which you can access whenever you need to without any formal demands then the concept of dropping out becomes irrelevant.

"MOOCs must not be seen as failure factories. They must rise above the education models that filter and weed out learners through failure. Good MOOCs will allow you to truly go at your own pace, to stop and start, go off on an exploratory path and return again. This is what true adult learning is and should be. I always drop out of learning experiences as I never go on formal courses. I decide when I’ve had enough. They should not copy but complement or construct new models of learning."

Of course the universities who offer MOOCs would like to see high completion rates in order to justify their investments. But let's leave the basic layer of open resources and courses free and accessible for all to use and benefit from but focus on value-added services like examination, tutoring, validation, recruitment and advertising as monetisation options. MOOCs are not really threatening the traditional university system - they are widening the scope and reach of higher education and reaching new audiences. As such they should not be judged by the same criteria as traditional courses.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Roulette by stoneflower, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by stoneflower

Narrowcasting is my new word of the week. It turns up in an article by Michael Petrilli, Tweet thine enemy. Basically it's about the way we tend to live in a social media bubble, only following people we agree with and seldom being exposed to opposing views. The author has compared the Twitter followers of various American political and educational figures and examined if there is much overlap.  In most comparisons between followers of republican/democrat, radical/conservative the amount of people who followed both sides was between 5% and 15%. This was also evident in educational debate between traditionalists and radicals; the two sides simply talk past each other and rarely meet.

"The bottom line is that there’s a whole lot of talking past one another in the education debate, though maybe less than in the political debate writ large. Want to be part of the solution? You might start by following on Twitter people whose views you abhor and staying open to the possibility that they might, nevertheless, have a few smart things to say."

No surprise really and I'll admit that I'm probably guilty as charged. We need more serendipity in our net lives - room for the unexpected. Maybe Twitter should introduce a pot-luck feed you can subscribe to which chooses random comments from your field of interest and where you will probably meet views you do not subscribe to. The old term surfing the web that was coined way back in the early nineties was probably the opposite of the sheltered web we live in today. I remember my early surfing days when I simply followed links wherever they took me just for the thrill of discovering what was out there. Now that I feel at home on the net I tend to visit the same places. 

One antidote to all this is StumbleUpon. Here you just click and are taken to a random site that fits the interest categories you fill into your profile. If you don't select too specific interests StumbleUpon will take you to all sorts of pages. If you're not interested you just click and you get a new page and you keep clicking until you stumble upon something interesting. The idea is that StumbleUpon will slowly learn what you like as you refine your preferences and choose ever more specific categories in your profile. However if you don't refine your profile and just keep it guessing you have an extremely random and serendipitous web browser and you never know what you will find. A lot of the selections are just useless, some are bizarre but quite often you find something unexpected. Worth trying now and again to avoid the trap of narrowcasting.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The illusion of learning

Personal Project by _rathernot, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by rathernot

One of the most popular study tools of the last 30 years must be the highlighter pen. Simply reading a text is not serious enough. As soon as you start marking key phrases and paragraphs in neon yellow you show the world, and more importantly yourself, that now you're really studying. I've highlighted many texts in my time and there is a certain feel-good factor in having concrete evidence that I have done more than just read the text. However I wonder if this is an example of a practice that gives an illusion of learning but does not in fact really help at all.

A new article by a group of American researchers, Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques (Association for Psychological Science), examines a number of popular learning techniques and tries to evaluate their effectiveness. Highlighting, rereading and summarizing are all rated as having "low utility" despite being probably the most popular.

"On the basis of the available evidence, we rate highlighting and underlining as having low utility. In most situations that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance. It may help when students have the knowledge needed to highlight more effectively, or when texts are difficult, but it may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making. Future research should be aimed at teaching students how to highlight effectively, given that students are likely to continue to use this popular technique despite its relative ineffectiveness."

The problem with highlighting is that few people have any real technique to follow. We simply underline things that seem useful at first glance rather than really thinking about what the key points might be. The profusion of neon in your textbook may look as if you've been studying hard but it does very little to help learning. It puts the focus on words and phrases rather then concepts and connections. The authors don't completely dismiss highlighting but stress that it requires more thought and practice to be of much real use.

What techniques work best then? According to the study, techniques such as practice testing (without grading) and distributed practice (spreading revision out over a longer period) gave the best results in terms of long term effect. The study techniques examined in this study however are those most used for self-study and more complex learning techniques through collaboration, reflective writing, peer review and problem-solving are not included.

What is interesting here is that we often rely on techniques that simply do not contribute to learning but are easy to use and give us the illusion of learning.

Read more in an article in Time IdeasHighlighting Is a Waste of Time: The Best and Worst Learning Techniques.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Technology must add value

Pudú in the classroom by Lizette Greco, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Lizette Greco

Simply using technology in class does not help students learn. Using technology to simply replace books, blackboards or pencils will not make any difference either no matter how cool the technology may seem. It's not the technology that makes the difference it's the way it is used and that it is used for the right purposes.

This is demonstrated very well in a post by Kathy CassidyThe Use and Abuse of Technology in the Classroom, which makes a list of when technology makes a difference and when it does not. The article is aimed at primary school teachers but the arguments apply almost as well to university level. The main argument is to use technology to do things that are simply not possible in the traditional classroom. If something can be done just as well without computers there may not be any relevance in using one. It has to make a difference to the experience and not just act as an electronic substitute.

"I have been concerned, though, by some of the ways that I see technology being used. Technology should not just allow us to do things in a more engaging way; it should allow us to do new things that we thought were not possible. It is those new things that are the real value technology provides. It is not enough to USE technology. You must use it well."

Here are Kathy's five justifications for technology. Read the article for her explanation and examples:
  • Technology should be for accessing what was inaccessible
  • Technology should be for doing good things in better ways
  • Technology should be for sharing with the world. 
  • Technology should be for connecting
  • Technology should give choices.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Verification as MOOC add-on

Security Check #CGK #MozTrip #USTrip by Viking KARWUR, on Flickr
Not surprisingly I start off 2013 with another development in the MOOC saga. As the search to find viable business cases for MOOCs intensifies Coursera have just announced a new revenue avenue - namely identity verification. According to an article by Paul Fain in Inside Higher Ed, Paying for proof, Coursera  students will be able to buy in to a "Signature Track" with photo and keystroke identification to prove that they have done the course work themselves. Student will then have a verified certificate with a detailed course performance record stored by Coursera which will then give added credibility to the student's work if it is to be exchanged at another institution for credits. These institutions will naturally be wary of student portfolios from MOOCs unless there is convincing proof that the student actually wrote the material.

This fits nicely into the layered model of education I mentioned a few weeks ago: A layered model for education. The foundation layer is the open content available to all and free. Above that in layer 2 comes various packaging solutions where institutions and educators can package the resources into courses that can be offered for free or not. Layer 3 includes the add-ons that are probably going to cost money and in this layer we find Coursera's signature track solution as well as services like tutoring and support. Layer 4 could include testing, examination, quality assurance and so on. The principle is that access to education is open and free for all whereas the higher layers will most likely be offered at a price, though free alternatives may be offered.

What we're seeing here is that universities have realised that you can't sell content and that the business case for MOOCs is selling credentials, verification and examination. The article mentions that  the other MOOC players, edX and Udacity, are also selling proctored testing of students at local test centres. Learning is free and open but if you want credentials and other add-ons then you will have to pay. However if the total costs for this path is lower than the full campus experience then we have succeeded in opening up education to more people. That's the benefit in my opinion.