Thursday, February 28, 2013

Working nine to five ...

Cubicle Farm by brianhendrix, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by brianhendrix

For many years we've seen articles about hi-tech companies creating stimulating creative workplaces as well as encouraging employees to work in coffee shops or at home. Greater freedom and flexibility fosters greater creativity and responsibility, or so the story goes. However when the going gets tough the flexibility tends to disappear and companies revert to the controlled and familiar workplace of the 20th century. Deep down organisations are not really comfortable with independent home- or road-working employees and there's a strong belief that everyone should be in the office when they're working.

According to an article on CNN, CEO right: Yahoo workers must show up, Yahoo's new CEO, Marissa Mayer, wants employees back in the office instead of working from home or on the road. Things are indeed extremely tough for Yahoo and she believes that it's time to get everyone back in the building and in their cubicles from nine to five to be able to focus on getting back on track. The article claims that despite advances in videoconferencing and social media top management still spend about 80% of their time in face-to-face meetings. I would suggest that top management are often the last people to embrace new means of communication such as social media, preferring the traditional channels and structures. I'm not sure face-to-face is always as productive as it's often claimed to be. Although some face-to-face meetings can be very rewarding and productive I find many of them an unnecessary waste of a lot of time and a shorter e-meeting would have solved the problem much faster. In an asynchronous net discussion everyone has a say and there's time to think before you write, a luxury you don't have in a f2f meeting. In some cases we probably don't even need to have a meeting.

Is this a knee-jerk reaction that you have to be gathered in the same building to be able to work together? Is it a desire for more control, making sure that everyone is "on duty"? Does it show a lack of trust in the workforce? I think it's an instinctive and understandable back-to-basics move in the face of a serious situation. However the article in CNN reveals a lot of common stereotypes about flexible working - that people working from home have an easy option or may not be focusing on the right tasks (are office workers really more focused?). The article only mentions e-mail as communication channel for home workers, nothing about the successful use of e-meetings, communities, collaborative writing, crowd-sourcing, video forums and so on.

Flexibility can and does work if people feel empowered and motivated. Sometimes the strictest boss on earth is the one inside your head and I've found working days at home to be much more productive than many in the office.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Social autopilot

Autopilot Engaged by Mike Miley, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Mike Miley

Over the last 5 years or so my use of social media has enabled me to develop a diverse and wide network of contacts all over the world. It has also given me the chance to take part in many projects and    discussions that I would never otherwise have been involved in and has given me the opportunity to travel to interesting conferences as guest speaker. The benefits of sharing and networking are enormous but one downside is the fact that once you're on the treadmill it's mighty hard to get off, even for a short break. Anyone who blogs will have noticed that even a week of blog silence has an effect on readership. You have to keep posting, or at least it feels like that.

I sometimes prepare for a holiday by writing several blog posts and then letting Blogger publish them one by one at regular intervals. I've also tried asking a colleague to do some blog-sitting duty. However that doesn't cure a week or two of Twitter or Facebook silence. However there are now tools to cure even this "problem". If you want to look as if you're always online even when you're not you can try Buffer. You simply load up your Buffer account with messages, links and news that you want to post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or a combination of the three and Buffer will then send your postings at regular intervals while you work offline or go off hiking in the mountains. Just keep it topped up and it'll do the rest making your network think that you never log off.

Only one drawback as I far as I can see. Social media need interaction to be social and this solution sounds more like broadcasting than interaction. You need to be online to answer questions and discuss. But as a solution for that week when you're planning to cross the Sahara by camel ...

Monday, February 25, 2013

How I learn

[06/45] - Study by Alex Ristea, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Alex Ristea

I decided recently to brush up my CV. I could list many years of experience in all sorts of roles but in one area I realised I was rather weak; formal qualifications. A master's degree, teacher training certificate and a few courses and diplomas here and there but that's about it. No significant certificates or qualifications in the past 8 years. It looks as if I'm not very studious or ambitious.

I suppose I'm a typical informal learner. In the past 10 years I've learnt an awful lot about net-based learning, distance learning and social media simply by reading, testing, tasting, writing and discussing without having taken a single course to prove what I know. What I work with today has no relation whatsoever to my qualifications and even if I can see the value of taking some time to get some credentials I never seem to get round to it. I've learnt fluent Swedish without having any certificates to prove it and have learnt the basics of several other languages without taking a course. So I'm in the embarrassing position of not using the knowledge I've got qualifications in and working in areas where I have few formal credentials. That is maybe not so wise working in the qualification-conscious world of higher education.

However I love to find out things myself and follow my own nose. I jump from one area to another and try to gain an overall view of as much as possible. I've written articles, a mountain of blog posts and discuss with a wonderful network of professionals who are often much wiser and better qualified than I'll ever be. I enjoy the freedom of learning what I want to learn and switching off when I feel like it. I'm not an expert in anything and may well turn my hand to something completely different in the next few years. On the other hand maybe I'll try and push myself through a real course for a change. Just for the hell of it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Organizing freedom

Light chaos by kevin dooley, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by kevin dooley

One of my favourite songs by Björk has a great line: "I thought I could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of me." Although massive open online courses are not very Scandinavian the folly of trying to organize freedom comes to mind when considering the criticism that MOOCs are facing from many quarters.

If MOOCs are really going to change education they have to break away from traditional course structure and find a new model.  The original MOOC concept (cMOOC) developed by Siemens, Downes, Cormier and others is based on students forming networks, creating content, collaborating, discussing and basically taking charge of their own learning. The course leaders provide a basic framework and a common meeting place but otherwise students work things out themselves. The model is learner centred and there is no clear linear progression through pre-planned course modules as you would find on a traditional campus course or on a traditional e-learning course.

However the MOOC model made famous by Coursera and edX, often named as xMOOC, is rather traditional and resembles a regular campus or online course with a clear syllabus and organised group work. The traditional universities running these courses don't seem to fully realize that you simply can't organize 50,000 students the way you can organize 50. Teachers are trying to run a regular course and even trying to organize students into study groups using tools that simply aren't scaleable to that level. That's what happened to the Coursera course, Fundamentals of Online Education, that was suspended recently when it got too chaotic. A case of trying to organize freedom.

This is well expressed in an article by Debbie Morrison called How Does Collaborative Learning Work in Closed Online Courses vs. MOOCs?. She describes the differences between cMOOCs, xMOOCs and COLCs (closed, online, for-credit learning, course). COLCs are the regular online for-credit courses that universities all over the world have been offering for over 15 years. Organized group work is an essential element to these courses and group assignments are designed and monitored by the teacher. Teacher guidance is a key element since students are often unused to collaborating online. The mistake made by some xMOOC designers is to try to offer the same level of guidance and control. The sheer numbers of students makes this task impossible and we need to realize that MOOCs must be allowed to be rather chaotic and where outcomes are on an individual level rather than expecting everyone to follow the same path all the way.

"What we do know is that instructors involved with massive courses, with thousands of students can’t control the outcomes of course, can’t direct the learning in a given direction, and can’t use an instructional strategy and methods that work for traditional courses. But the concept of the Web as a classroom that can bring learning to thousands that want to learn about a given topic is There is great potential in reaching students all over the world, and many of these MOOCs have already changed and improved lives of thousands."

Massive online courses need a new model and need to be clearly differentiated from traditional university courses. They are not competing but providing new paths to learning. Exactly which methods work and which do not is still being worked out. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Putting MOOCs into perspective

CC BY Some rights reserved by NJ..
MOOCs are still at the crest of the hype cycle and some of the headlines are getting rather tiresome. There's also a growing polarisation in the discussion between the overblown claims that MOOCs will replace the traditional university system and the counterclaims that they are irrelevant gimmicks with no academic quality. An article by Cathy N. Davidson in University World News, Stop polarising the MOOCs debate, tries to put the hype into perspective. 

Open courses provide new opportunities for study to people who are not able to enroll on a traditional university course. University education is still only for an elite few in a global perspective and the spread of MOOCs gives millions access to at least a taste of higher education. Even if there are now avenues for converting MOOC experience into credits, that path is hardly a threat to the established university system. Regular students are not dropping out of their full-time studies to go MOOC:

"There is no evidence that students are dropping out of brick-and-mortar universities in droves in order to enrol in online courses. On the contrary, the typical online course student is someone who would not otherwise have access to higher education."

The article sees no evidence that MOOCs are likely to drive down tuition fees either. It may be that the traditional system will continue unaffected by MOOCs and open education (remember that MOOCs are not as open as they may claim). Those who need the status and credentials of a recognised university degree will continue to pay for it but the difference is that all those who cannot afford that have now got access to an alternative. It may not have the same status but it may well develop into something that is good enough, especially if some kind of credentials are available such as Open Badges.

As Cathy Davidson concludes:

"Indeed, in many cases MOOCs will not solve the problem of the high cost of tuition fees at face-to-face institutions; but, in the end, they may help more people who have never conceived of attending a ‘real’ college participate in the higher education that, the numbers show, is coveted, prized, valued, sought after.And thus – for MOOC lovers and MOOCs haters alike – an important rhetorical point we should all be emphasising, in every conversation: in the complex, changing world in which we live, advanced learning is necessary. Not a luxury. It deserves the public support of other necessities. Advanced education is far too important to price out of the market for all but the global 1%."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Smarter than the average pen

Photo: Lernstift
Sometimes digital technology can be used to enhance an analogue process. When we write on computers or mobiles we are used to increasingly smart spelling and grammar checking tools as well as instant translation. After a primitive and sometimes hilarious start these services are maturing fast and although they're far from measuring up to professional proof-reading or translation they are often good enough for the context they're used in.

A German startup called Lernstift is now launching a revolutionary pen that will alert you if you make a spelling mistake or a grammatical error when handwriting on paper. The pen does not offer the answer to your error, it simply vibrates to alert you that something is wrong and you have to think again.

"Der Lernstift is not at all a cheating pen! After all, it doesn’t give you the correct answer, it merely points your attention to a mistake. It’s like a reliable friend tapping you on the shoulder, saying: "Wait a minute! Something’s not quite right. Think again." Kids will still have to learn orthography and grammar, but that’ll be much faster and much more fun."

The pen can be used in two modes. In calligraphy mode it vibrates if you write illegibly and in orthography mode it vibrates once for a spelling error and twice for a grammar error. 

The company is appealing for help to finance further development so if you have some spare cash you might consider investing!

Here's a demonstration film. It's in German but even if you don't understand what's said you get an idea of the product.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Space to think

We learn through collaboration, discussion and sharing. However we also learn by quiet contemplation and by the often solitary processes of reading and writing. Most levels of education today, both classroom and online, stress the importance of group work and our ability to function in groups is highly valued. However there's a risk that we are forgetting the importance of working alone and thereby losing the opportunity to think deeply.

This is the theme of an excellent TED talk by Susan Cain called The power of introverts where she argues the case of all introverts who aren't comfortable with group work and seldom contribute to class discussions. This is not because they have nothing to contribute - often quite the contrary - but that they need time to think before expressing themselves. Classroom discussions are generally dominated by a few confident students and group work is also dominated by those who enjoy speaking and being the centre of attention. Crowds are not always as wise as we think and are sometimes easily lead to the wrong conclusions by dominant or manipulative members, both in class and online. She argues that society puts too much emphasis on groups and social interaction and sees solitary activities as negative. Offices are now mostly open landscapes and few people have the luxury of a quiet space to work. Open spaces can be creative but creativity also needs peace and quiet.

A teacher's perspective on this issue is presented in a blog post by Monica EdingerIn the Classroom: A Few Classroom Teaching Suggestions from an Introverted Teacher. She presents a selection of strategies to enable the less vocal students have a say in class discussions. This involves waiting for answers in silence rather than always feeling obliged to say more. It also involves not giving the dominant speakers so much space to dominate, doing much less group work and giving students more time and space to think. Written communication, often as an online private dialogue between student and teacher, gives more introvert students a more appropriate channel to reflect and discuss their learning.

The main idea behind the concepts of flexible or blended learning is that we have the tools and methods to let students learn the way that suits them best. There is a need for dynamic group work and that must be available but we shouldn't forget that many people learn best on their own and need more space to learn. The secret is in the mix.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

And the winner is ...

The New Media Consortium's annual Horizon reports have become a sort of Academy Awards for educational technology and their release is met each year with a wave of excitement. Each year they nominate 6 technologies that will have a major influence on different sectors in education (higher education and school) in three time-to-adoption horizons: one year, 2-3 years and 4-5 years. They also highlight a number of current trends as well as identifying key challenges to education.

This year's Horizon Report 2013 Higher education Edition was released last week and the technologies in focus are:
  • Time to adoption, one year: MOOCs (surprise surprise!) and tablet computing
  • Time to adoption, two to three years: games/gamification, learning analytics
  • Time to adoption, four to five years: 3D printing, wearable technology
The trends they highlight are not surprisingly the spread of openness and the increase in informal net-based learning demonstrated most visibly by the MOOC explosion as well as many less visible but in many cases more innovative approaches (connectivist MOOCs, Peer 2 Peer University, Open Badges, Udemy etc). The challenges facing higher education tend to repeat themselves each year with the lack of systematic training in digital skills for faculty members in focus once again. Similarly there is a mismatch between universities' traditional structures and practices and the potential benefits of new technologies.

"Faculty training still does not acknowledge the fact that digital media literacy continues its rise
in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession. Despite the widespread agreement on the importance of digital media literacy, training in the supporting skills and techniques is rare in teacher education and non-existent in the preparation of faculty."

Innovation is being blocked by tradition and many universities risk becoming out of tune with both their students and with the world of business, both of whom have embraced new technology. The report makes this point many times:
  • Too often it is education’s own processes and practices that limit broader uptake of new technologies.
  • The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices.
  • Most academics are not using new technologies for learning and teaching, nor for organizing their own research.
I took some time to browse through the last seven years of Horizon reports to see how far their predictions came true. Many have indeed become widely used in society in general, like social networking, mobile computing, cloud computing, grassroots video, e-books, mobile broadband, though none of them have become fully accepted and integrated into higher education. In 2007 the technologies on the one year adoption horizon were social networking and user-generated content. While they are certainly widespread today for social communication and informal learning they are far from accepted in education and there aren't so many institutions who have fully adopted social networking or user-generated content into their curriculum.

Some technologies have been parked on the same adoption horizon for several years and have still not made the leap into mainstream practice. In this group we find gesture-based computing which was in the 4-5 year category from 2010 to 2012 before disappearing completely in this year's line-up. Mobile computing has been on the one year horizon for the last 5 years in one form or other and although the concept has changed over these years it is still not mainstream at universities where the technical focus is still on desktops and laptops rather than mobiles and tablets.

Some technologies simply disappear from the list, like virtual worlds, and others appear from nowhere like MOOCs. The case of MOOCs is interesting. They've been bubbling away in the background for several years without really being taken seriously but when suddenly the top universities adopted the term and morphed it into a new concept the world was taken by storm.

My main conclusion is that most of the predictions of the last seven years are sadly still waiting to happen in all but a minority of the world's universities. The Horizon Report is of course a key indicator of what technologies are being used in education but one trend that they mention year after year is that education is not a sector that is particularly open to innovation. The net is changing the way we approach education and learning but the traditions of the formal education system are extremely deep-rooted and there is a great suspicion of innovation that often goes under the guise of critical thinking. So far this change resistance has stopped all but a very few Horizon nominated technologies from breaking into mainstream higher education (with a few notable exceptions).

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

GERM is stifling creativity in education

In many countries today a lot of the political rhetoric in education revolves around competition, accountability and standardised testing. By running schools like companies and by encouraging competition, league tables and payment by results we ensure that the quality of education is improved and that weak schools and incompetent teachers will naturally fall by the wayside. There is little evidence however that running education on business lines has any positive influence on learning because learning is not something that can be inspired by control and standardisation.

As a perfect answer to this trend have a look at this TEDx talk by Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg. He talks about the biggest threat to education which he calls GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement). This is the movement that demands more competition, accountability and standardisation in education and has considerable influence in the education policies of many countries. The Finnish school system, however, is consistently at the top of most rating systems and has got there by simply not being business-like. No competition, empowered and well-paid teachers with considerable autonomy and no standardised testing are part of the recipe that has inspired educators and administrators from all over the world to look more closely at the "Finnish miracle".

In a world where a considerable part of many state schools' budgets is spent on advertising campaigns to compete with other state schools, it makes you wonder if tax money could be better spent in improving the learning going on there.

Thanks to my contact Lars-Erik Jonsson @Gulejon for alerting me to this.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Preaching to the converted

Audience by adactio, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by adactio

The problem with conferences in all lines of business is that they gather large numbers of people who are all in the same business and tend to agree on most things. At all the e-learning conferences I attend there is a wonderful consensus in the air as we all enthuse about new trends and all agree that "something has to be done" about this and that. I often wish that we could see more outsiders at these events, especially more decision makers such as government officials, politicians, principals, heads of department and so on. Instead of preaching to the converted it would be good to let skeptics see how much good work is going on and maybe realize that our field has come of age.

However a blog post by Bill FerriterWhy Preaching to the #educhoir Really DOES Matter, changes the perspective. He agrees that ed tech conferences can be echo chambers where everyone agrees with each other but at the same time notes that many teachers and educational technologists need such an oasis to gather new energy.

"The simple truth is that being a change agent can be a REALLY lonely experience.
And while we have to remind ourselves to constantly introduce dissenting voices to our learning streams, never discount the role that singing together can play in lifting us up, affirming our core values and beliefs, and fighting back against professional isolation."

Both angles are of course valid. We do need to widen the discussion and get more decision makers on board but we also need to offer meeting places for all the innovators and pioneers who are often in need of reassurance and recognition and the vital insight that there are other people just as mad as me out there.