Thursday, March 28, 2013

Boredom is good for you

My dog being bored by joshme17, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by joshme17

Is boredom is becoming an endangered state of mind? We have almost abolished boredom from our lives today because the second we feel the slightest hint of it we check our mobile for a game, an app, some music, a film or at least check Facebook or Twitter for updates. We used to get very bored waiting for buses or trains but not any more. Everyone is absorbed in their own private soundtrack. We all demand entertainment and contact 24-7-365.

Boredom and its colleague silence are not a popular couple these days and we try to eliminate them wherever they might appear. When was the last time you sat in a cafe, pub or restaurant that didn't have background music (often foreground music)? Runners and walkers are cocooned in their playlists. Do we ever allow ourselves to be alone, in silence and without any particular plan of what to do next?

An article from BBC News, Children should be allowed to get bored, describes research carried out by Dr Teresa Belton (University of East Anglia) on children and boredom. She has interviewed people about how boredom affected their creativity as children. She found many who were inspired to creative activities through boredom and silence:

"Enforced solitude alone with a blank page is a wonderful spur."
"As I get older, I appreciate reflection and boredom. Boredom is a very creative state."
"She happily entertained herself with making up stories, drawing pictures of her stories and going to the library."

Many people today are willing to pay for retreat weekends free from noise and distractions, hoping for inspiration and balance. Silence and a lack of stimulation are becoming exclusive commodities. Maybe it's time to reassess boredom and see its positive side.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Digital resilience

I've just read a post by Bill Ferriter entitled Technology will kill where he stresses the need for us to become digitally resilient. This resilience is characterised by:

"The refusal to quit when confronted by blocked websites, antiquated tools, or technology decisions that are not aligned with a new vision for teaching and learning."

The post was in response to the frustration of seeing a long-trusted service, in this case Google Reader, getting suddenly killed off because it was no longer viable. This is of course one of the hard facts of life in the perpetual beta world of free social media. They're only free as long as their owners have a valid business case and whenever the business case weakens it either gains a price tag or they pull out the plug on it. Digital resilience is about the ability to quickly adapt and find a new solution or even have a plan B in the wings.

Another side of this resilience is having the patience to try again. Many of us try a new technology once and when it doesn't work perfectly, we decide that it wasn't as good as it was cracked up to be - "I told you it wouldn't work." Many have unrealistically high expectations of technology; that it should be completely intuitive and can be mastered with a minimum of effort. Maybe the industry is to blame for pushing the user-friendly argument rather too often and forgetting to add that user-friendly doesn't mean that the device or tool requires no skill. Learning takes time and involves a lot of trial and error. Mastery demands sweat and sometimes tears. Although many digital tools are fairly easy to learn at a rudimentary level you need to work hard to really produce impressive work.

Digital resilience also means having the confidence to use technology even if colleagues are skeptical and there is little support. Finding ways around obstacles and having the patience to test and fail till you get it right.

Bill's post includes a video that isn't quite in tune with digital resilience but does show how technology is quietly rendering many familiar tools, devices and methods obsolete often completely behind our backs. Worth watching here as well.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Great expectations

over the horizon by Beaulawrence, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Beaulawrence

I'm following Open University's MOOC, #H817open, and one recommended article gave us a chance to get a flavour of how the whole OER movement began. An article from 2001 by Stephen Downes, Learning Objects: Resources for distance education worldwide (IRRODL Vol 2 no 1, July 2001) explained the logic behind sharing educational resources (in those days referred to as learning objects) and gave a clear financial incentive for schools and universities to start sharing. Why should hundreds/thousands of teachers all over the world spend valuable (and expensive) hours producing very similar resources when one excellent resource could be produced and then shared?

"The economics are relentless. It makes no financial sense to spend millions of dollars producing multiple versions of similar learning objects when single versions of the same objects could be shared at a much lower cost per institution. There will be sharing, because no institution producing its own materials on its own could compete with institutions sharing learning materials."

The financial incentives for sharing instead of producing expensive digital resources seem so clear in this article. So here we are twelve years later and sharing of open resources has still not become mainstream practice despite Downes' convincing financial incentives. Masses of resources have been created and are easily accessible but still most teachers prefer to create their own resources or use the prescribed textbooks from major publishers. Given the potential financial incentive to share resources why has OER not become more widespread?
  • There is no real culture of sharing in education. Many teachers still feel obliged to design, manage and have full control of their courses. Many colleges base teachers' salaries on lecture hours thus perpetuating that particular form of teaching. Using other people's resources is not fully accepted and content is still closely guarded rather than shared. The key to establishing a culture of sharing is clear leadership and support to teachers.
  • Too many shades of openness. There's a nice short presentation by Derek Keats called How most Open Educational Resources fail to meet the UNESCO definition of OER that demonstrates how the majority of "open" resources are actually restricted. Material from the major universities, including iTunes U and most MOOC material, is of course available and accessible but most of it is still copyright and cannot be reused or adapted. Even some Creative Commons material is restricted by the No derivatives and Non-commercial conditions. Truly open resources must be free to reuse and adapt.
  • Lack of trust. Resources from credible institutions like major universities tend to be restricted whereas the truly open resources do not have a stamp of trustworthiness, often produced by individuals rather than institutions. Quality assurance needs to be developed to give credibility to OER.
  • Convenience. Standard textbooks and prescribed literature are designed to fit into national curricula and are linked to learning outcomes. The same goes for online material supplied by major publishers. Putting all this together finding appropriate resources from the vast pool of OER is simply more work than many teachers can afford to take on, especially given teachers' overload of administrative duties.
  • Lack of incentives. Teachers who produce good resources can win praise from other teachers in the OER community but it doesn't increase academic reputation. Careers are dependent on getting articles published in academic journals and running courses with high pass rates and good evaluations. Creating OER does not lead to any career rewards.
For more on this theme read an article by Gerd Kortemeyer in Educause Review: Ten Years Later: Why Open Educational Resources Have Not Noticeably Affected Higher Education, and Why We Should Care.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Is it a course? Is it a textbook? No, it's a MOOC!

Is it a Bird? is it a Plane? by Flicktone, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Flicktone

It's hard enough trying to evaluate regular education because learning is not easily measured; if indeed we can even hope to do so. We can of course test to see what people have remembered or whether they can explain concepts in a clear and logical manner but how do we know what they have actually learnt? So if evaluating traditional education is tough how hard is it to evaluate a MOOC? A bit like nailing jelly to the wall as a colleague once said, though I can't remember when.

MOOC providers may believe that they are offering a university course and duly organise it as such but do the participants share that belief? If you sign up for a regular university course you make a commitment, invest money and time and expect a reward for your efforts. You buy into the course concept, accept the university's terms and step into line. Everyone understands what they're involved in and accepts the rules. When you sign up for a MOOC, however, you don't buy into the concept in the same way. You join the course for your own reasons, have your own objectives and preferences and are often uninterested in the certification that may or may not be available at the end. Many have no intention of completing the "course" at all, they're simply curious to see what the fuss is all about. When there is no consensus as to what the MOOC is, an evaluation becomes extremely difficult.

Stephen Downes' post, Evaluating a MOOC, claims that we can't evaluate MOOCs with the same criteria as traditional courses since they aren't actually courses. They are many things to many people.

"I think the best way to understand success in a MOOC is by analogy with, say a book, or a game, or a trip to the city.
The person taking the MOOC is like a person reading a book, playing a game, or taking a trip to the city. It is impossible to talk about 'the objective' of such an activity - some people want to learn something (and others something else), others are doing it for leisure (and others as part of their job), others to make friends (and others to get away from their friends for a while), etc."

A successful MOOC creates enough momentum to continue after the "course" is complete. Since the motivations of each participant are so different it is more relevant to evaluate the MOOC as an entity and look at what the community has achieved and how vibrant and self-sufficient that community has become. MOOCs will develop into new forms and new terminology will emerge to differentiate between them. Some will be traditional courses with a syllabus and learning outcomes and will expect students to accept the rules of engagement whereas others will be more fluid and become learning communities with learners coming and going, some staying for months and others simply dropping in for inspiration.

"MOOC success, in other words, is not individual success. We each have our own motivations for participating in a MOOC, and our own rewards, which may be more or less satisfied. But MOOC success emerges as a consequence of individual experiences. It is not a combination or a sum of those experiences - taking a poll won't tell us about them - but rather a result of how those experiences combined or meshed together."

The important point is that evaluation is only possible when we know what it is we are evaluating and that all participants are aware of what they are engaged in. Confused? I still am but I'm trying to work it all out.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Time to dump the remote controls

remote control pig pile by redjar, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by redjar

Every electronic device you buy for your home comes complete with its very own remote control. My home is full of them, some used every day whereas others are hidden away and forgotten. We've even got a few so-called universal remote controls that are supposed to replace all the others but we've never really figured out how. So there are still four controls on the coffee table and we're still waiting for the solution to the problem.

So I was pleased to read an article on Digital Trends called Why mobile devices spell certain death for the universal remote control. The future belongs to mobiles and tablet and it only makes sense to use them to control our household gadgets via a smart app. One mobile device for everything seems the way to go.

"In the modern world, apps have supplanted dedicated devices. Why own five products with five different purposes when you could own one product with five million purposes? Connected mobile devices with app functionality have forced plenty of competitors into obsolescence and the universal remote will soon lie somewhere on that laundry list."

Can't come soon enough for me.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

OER - from resources to mainstream practice

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain
There is a vast range of open educational resources to choose from if you know where to look and how to search. For most teachers however the main barrier to using OER is the difficulty in finding the right material and assessing its quality and appropriacy. Institutions are reluctant to fully embrace OER since there are few established policies and quality guidelines and inventing these from scratch is simply too time-consuming. The move from a structured world of published textbooks based on a national or regional curriculum to an unstructured ocean of free resources of uncertain quality and with little or no pre-packaging is simply too daunting for most academic leaders to face.

For OER to really make an impact on mainstream education the resources need to be packaged together in related groups of resources or forming a learning path towards a particular learning outcome. This linkage and packaging could be achieved by classifying and tagging resources so that teachers can search for a package of related resources around a common specific theme.

Something along these lines is what newly founded Lumen Learning is offering schools and universities. Founded by open learning pioneer David Wiley of Brigham Young University and education technology strategist Kim Thanos, Lumen Learning offer to help replace expensive textbooks with open content that is specifically tailored to the learning outcomes of the school's curriculum. The new company's services are described as:
  • Finding quality content and mapping it to course learning outcomes. 
  • Incorporating OER into academic strategy and curriculum decisions. 
  • Training and supporting faculty. 
  • Improving student outcomes. 
The challenge they face is proving that OER can be trustworthy and of high quality, that they can actually replace traditional textbooks and also save the institution and its students a significant amount of money. Institutions are highly unlikely to be able to carry out the above tasks on their own and the niche for Lumen and similar companies would seem clear. If this process works out cheaper than today's textbook-based regime then all the better.

Lumen will earn money from offering these services but they promise to publish the results of their work openly and thus benefit the whole open education community. If this is the opening for OER to gain mainstream acceptance then it will be a welcome development.

Read more about Lumen in an article in Inside Higher EdCompany Sees Opening for OER

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Another MOOC model

Most MOOCs are being developed and run on universities' regular budgets with a very uncertain return on investment. But what if someone offers you funding to develop an open course? Suddenly the risk factor is reduced and maybe more reluctant universities can be helped into the open arena as well as possibly stimulating higher quality. That's the reasoning behind the latest installment in the MOOC saga.

This week the open learning platform iversity and the German Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft have launched the MOOC Production Fellowship. This initiative offers ten fellowships of €25,000 to institutions or teachers who wish to develop innovative new MOOCs. It's a competition to find the ten most innovative and sustainable MOOCs and the reward should inspire many universities to develop something really worthwhile. The aim is to have at least five new MOOCs online during the autumn of 2013 with the rest following in spring 2014. The MOOCs can be offered in any language but the applications must be either in English or German. The lucky winners will be able to offer their courses on the iversity platform but the university retains the rights to the material and the option to commercialize the course if they feel so inclined after it has been offered as a free MOOC in 2013-2014.

The applicants will present their ideas for public scrutiny and the fellowships will be awarded through a combination of crowdsourcing and the views of an expert panel. Full details of how to apply and some general guidelines of what the MOOCs should include are available in the details page. There's also a publicity video included below. Unfortunately it makes the common mistake of attributing the discover of MOOCs to the Stanford AI course of autumn 2011 rather than the original concept started by Siemens, Downes and Cormier back in 2008.

If the injection of some start capital that places clear demands on quality and pedagogic innovation then this sort of initiative may well stimulate more creative variations on the MOOC theme. It will hopefully also appeal to European universities who are interested in the concept but need a push to get started.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Your first degree course is a MOOC

The quest for a sustainable business model for xMOOCs (those open courses offered by major universities) continues with a variety of possible solutions such as offering examination (and a chance to earn credits) or extra tuition for a fee as well as selling student contacts to headhunting companies. However the latest model to emerge would seem to be highly attractive to mainstream universities.

MOOC2degree is a new initiative that offers the first course of a degree program as a MOOC in the hope of recruiting students on to the full program. A consortium of seven US universities under the coordination of Academic Partnerships are already on board and intend to use MOOCs as a shop window for their regular programs. The MOOCs will be free, open to all and will actually give you credits if you sign up for the full degree program. Whether students who do not register to continue will be able to keep their credits is not clear to me but the business case here is perfectly clear and justified if it can help the university recruit more students.

"With MOOC2Degree, Academic Partnerships has collaborated with public universities to offer credit-bearing MOOCs as a first step and a free start toward earning a degree. Through this new initiative, the initial course in select online degree programs will be converted into a MOOC. Each MOOC will be the same course with the same academic content, taught by the same instructors, as currently offered degree programs at participating universities. Students who successfully complete a MOOC2Degree course earn academic credits toward a degree, based upon criteria established by participating universities."

Have a look at the introduction video from MOOC2degree.

This is very mainstream and is simply a way of recruiting to regular university degree programs and that's exactly why I think it will appeal to many universities. It's not really new either because universities like the UK's Open University have offered their courses openly through OpenLearn for several years and many students have been inspired by those free courses to sign up for the fee-paying versions. Many students on MOOC2degree will also decide to sign up for the full degree but at the same time those who simply wanted to learn without needing the credits can also benefit from the experience. It's not very disruptive (oops that word again!) and but it doesn't pretend to be. However by embracing the principle of massive online courses the participating universities will be forced to thoroughly revise their online strategy and look carefully at the pedagogy of online courses to make sure that the MOOC experience is dynamic and stimulating enough to make students willing to pay for more.

Read more in an article in eCampus News (March 2013), A new business model for MOOCs

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Make your browser more social

I use Skype every day for meetings and chat sessions with colleagues all over the world. However wouldn't it be good if such web conferencing tools were completely integrated in your web browser?
A promising development is WebRTC a technology that allows you to start video calls inside your browser and where the video window follows you even when you switch between tabs in your browser. No more Alt-Tabbing between applications and that seems like progress. WebRTC is an open code package that application developers can use to develop new web tools. It's still underdevelopment but the potential is clear. Let's see who develops the best solution.

Here's an introduction film to show what is possible though remember that this is just a basic example.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Beyond the hype

Hype by elizaIO, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by elizaIO

MOOCs are at the top of the hype cycle at the moment and the rhetoric is often rather exaggerated to say the least. Almost every day there are eye-catching headlines about how this is going to revolutionize/disrupt/replace higher education and how this trend is a major game-changer or paradigm shift. I admit those phrases have passed my lips as well but maybe it's time to tone down the hype and start look at the more practical implications.

Martin Weller gives us an excellent reminder to avoid unnecessary exaggeration in the education debate in a short post called Disrupting Disruption.

"Disruptors are not concerned about your specific problem, they only have blanket solutions. They don't worry about making something useful, only about sounding revolutionary. Disruption is about ego. You see disruption appeals to people because it's revolutionary, elite, new, sexy. Just being useful or practical looks all dowdy besides practical."

Another danger in the hype is that instead of inspiring traditionalists to take notice of new approaches to education, the exaggerations make them even more convinced that MOOCs or whatever else is being hyped are simply a passing fad and should not be taken very seriously. Let's calm the rhetoric and see MOOCs or whatever they will be called in the future as interesting experiments to widen the scope of education. They may add new dimensions to the existing forms of education rather than replacing or disrupting. Let's see it as part of a development rather than a revolution.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Challenges of the online classroom

Photo: MCGunner on Imgur
The photo on the right was taken by a medical student and has been spread widely on the net over the last few weeks. See for example an article in EdudemicIs this now a typical classroom?

CC BY Some rights reserved by Brett Jordan
It shows a increasingly common sight in university lecture halls where the lecturer way down there can easily become a minor distraction to the students at the back. The photo below right has been around for a while now but shows the teacher's view of such a class. It's easy as a teacher to look up at the sea of laptops and believe that they're all checking your links and taking insightful notes. Many of them are but others are not and that's really nothing new and should not even be a surprise to those of us who went to university before internet and who spent many lectures daydreaming, reading a newspaper, doodling or writing notes to neighbours.

Distractions have always existed but computers make it more obvious and seem to many as an intrusion. As a teacher it can certainly seem intimidating to face the sea of laptops pictured here and wonder if anyone is actually listening. But the main issue is that we have to really think about why we want to gather students in this sort of room at all, given that they can access lectures, articles, films etc from anywhere. What does the classroom offer that cannot be done with a webinar or social network? In particular, what does the traditional lecture hall offer that makes attendance unmissable? How can we make the face-to-face contact really work in this environment? Or maybe we have to see that lecture halls only really work for one way communication and that they should be reserved for really special lectures. Maybe live lectures will become special occasions rather than everyday chores and when you go to one you know it's going to be special. The rest are already available whenever you want on the net.