Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Next best thing

book store by tom.belte, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by tom.belte

We have enormous respect for the written word. Reading a book has high cultural status that is somehow linked to the fact that it is printed on paper. However other means of telling a story never attain the level of respect that printed texts have. Even reading the digital version somehow has a lower status to reading a "real" book. Further down the respect list come listening to an audio book, watching a film of the book or playing the game. If a child sits all day reading a book we praise them but spending all day watching films or playing complicated interactive computer games is regarded as less praiseworthy and can even be seen as a problem. Somehow the written word is the "real thing" whereas all other media are seen as less serious versions; the next best thing.

I started thinking about this after hearing a talk from a colleague, Anette Svensson of Jönköping University, who has been studying attitudes to different forms of storytelling in schools and how we always give priority to text. This is strange since the written word was originally the next best thing to the spoken word. The oral tradition of ancient civilisations was all about spell-binding narrators who could tell inspiring tales that could last for hours. These were passed down from generation to generation as spoken narratives before finally being written down by poets like Homer. The written form of the Iliad was therefore a pale copy of the real thing which lacked the expression, drama, gestures and eye contact of the live performance. The art of storytelling is seldom practiced in schools unfortunately.

The point is that we should value different media and treat them on their own merits. There are always arguments about whether the film was as good as the book but it's better to discuss whether or not it was a good film. In education all focus is on written communication and success is dependent on mastering this skill. Of course it is important but in today's multi-media world it's surely time to accept examination assignments as films, games or podcasts which often demand a wider understanding of the subject matter than simply writing a text.

There has been a similar attitude to distance and online learning; a substitute for the "real thing" - classroom teaching. As a result we have tried to construct online equivalents of the traditional teaching environment with virtual classrooms, recorded lectures and lots of school vocabulary with e- on the front. Online courses are not respected highly in universities and often it's the most inexperienced faculty members who teach them, though now with the advent of MOOCs all the top professors want to get in there since there's a potential audience of millions out there.

We need to concentrate on learning using different media and different spaces (physical and online) rather than seeing one as a substitute for the other. There are different physical learning spaces that are great for some activities and poor for others. The same applies online. The key is to see how each space can facilitate learning and meaningful interaction. The classroom is not default any more, there are other arenas too just as we should not simply focus on text communication and neglect all other media. Judge each on their own merits.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

MOOCs and higher ed - can they live happily together?

I don't believe that MOOCs are going to replace universities in a tsunami revolution or other such headline-grabbing claims. I see MOOCs as primarily about informal lifelong learning rather than part of the credit-gathering formal education system, complementing rather than competing against it. They're another variant of all the online education that has been going on for the last 15 years or more. Different types of MOOC (or whatever they will be called in the future) fill different niches in a new educational ecosystem. However an interesting question is where MOOCs can be integrated into the formal system? I suspect we'll see varying degrees of integration and adaptation rather than massive disruption as touted by the headline makers.

One aspect is using the MOOC format to provide pre-university courses to get students on track and familiarise them with university study skills, information literacy, academic writing, source criticism and so on. These are skills that are supposed to permeate all courses but are often not explicitly taught and providing free pre-university courses would benefit both students and universities. There are already many examples of this in place but cooperation between universities is essential to prevent each one developing roughly the same course .

Another interesting idea comes from Martin Weller's post MOOCs As 1st Year Undergrad Replacement. He gives due credit to many of the xMOOCs in that they provide a good grounding in their subject area and could possibly replace many first year undergraduate courses which often have well over 100 students and where teacher-student interaction on campus is minimal.

"I know from doing my first degree in Psychology that the first year is really spent bringing everyone up to speed. A second year could then start on the assumption that all of the above is known to all students. This is where a conventional (campus or distance) university can step in. The MOOCs only take you so far. They're good at getting across content, but not so good at developing skills."

The idea is that a student could study an number of recommended MOOCs from various universities to get that first year grounding and then start start on campus for year two. The MOOC work would have to be validated and maybe some kind of examination task could be set to assess what has been learnt. The motivation here would be to save tuition fees for the first year and thereby making university more affordable. That's no motivation here in Sweden where there are no fees in higher education but in many other countries this makes a lot of sense. Many students will still want to study their first year on campus anyway but this option provides more flexibility. 

However, Weller closes by wondering:

"One parting thought - if this model was used successfully I wonder how long before the MOOC providers started charging for their courses to be used in this way?"


Thursday, October 24, 2013

The new oil

20111210_K7_P19529-dt_03.jpg by cclark395, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by cclark395

Every day we happily agree to sharing enormous amounts of information about ourselves to a wide range of companies. All those club cards we carry around which register every purchase we make and gather various kinds of bonus points that some day can be cashed in for discount. The reward to the company is tons of data about our preferences, purchasing habits and spending power that can then be used for targeted advertising and as statistical data for marketing analysis. Free has a price tag.

The same goes for all the free web services we know and love, bringing you, among millions of other things, this blog. The price of free is offering a vast amount of raw data that companies can then analyse to then offer services back to us or as strategic marketing data. As the saying goes "if it's free, you're probably the product." Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and all the others are collecting all our clicks for future harvesting and it's not hard to see that maybe that is one of the main drivers behind the MOOC trend. There's a lot of speculation about MOOC business models and although there are a few already in place they are probably not the reason the major MOOC players have attracted impressive amounts of venture capital.

An excellent presentation by Audrey Watters, Student Data is the New Oil: MOOCs, Metaphor, and Money (Hack Education 17 October), raises possible the real motivation behind MOOCs, namely the promise of data mining. Data it seems is the new oil and we are only just beginning to be able to refine it and put it to use. By storing all your clicks, which sites you visit, browsing patterns, videos watched, tweets sent, test scores and so on you can build up incredibly detailed profiles of every user. This can be used to be able to suggest new content specially for you, predict how you will behave, assess your learning and so on. Learning analytics has been on the radar of the Horizon Report for a few years now but the technology to fully realise the potential is only beginning to emerge.

Student data could well be digital oil and companies that can store the most will soon be able to refine it into useful commodities and Watters suggests that the scramble to own the oil reserves has only just begun. Until now this data was stored in many separate silos but these are being linked together and the next stage of web development will see completely new ways of utilizing and monetizing the raw data. Learning analytics promise personalized education where the net will guide you through customized learning paths suggesting material and methods suited to what works best for you. There are almost unlimited opportunities here but there's also a more sinister side if all this data gets into the wrong hands. Watters quotes from journalist Jer Thorp:

"Perhaps the “data as oil” idea can foster some much-needed criticality. Our experience with oil has been fraught; fortunes made have been balanced with dwindling resources, bloody mercenary conflicts, and a terrifying climate crisis. If we are indeed making the first steps into economic terrain that will be as transformative (and possibly as risky) as that of the petroleum industry, foresight will be key. We have already seen “data spills” happen (when large amounts of personal data are inadvertently leaked). Will it be much longer until we see dangerous data drilling practices? Or until we start to see long term effects from “data pollution”?

The analogy with oil is an excellent warning of the potential and dangers of digging too deep. Here's Audrey Watters' slideshow that accompanies the talk.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Bite-sized learning

Bite sized tapas by Smaku, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by Smaku

I've written several times about why completion rates are not particularly relevant when it comes to MOOCs. Most of the students are studying out of pure interest in their limited spare time and if more important things happen in their lives they will naturally drop the course. However if you really want to keep most students' attention for the full duration of your course the answer is to make the course as short as possible. Given people's busy schedules it's best to break learning into bite-sized modules where you can "complete" a course after say 2-3 weeks while your enthusiasm lasts and momentum is up. Instead of offering a 12 week course, divide it into say 4 x 3 week modules. Short term targets feel more achievable. My MOOC efforts haven't lasted past the week 3 mark yet so I can identify with this model. I simply can't commit my evenings to a MOOC for many weeks in advance but 2-3 weeks would probably work.

This is the subject of an article by George Anders in LinkedIn, Education Pioneer's Advice: Beat the Clock. It seems Andrew Ng, co-founder of MOOC provider Coursera, has drawn the conclusion that Coursera's courses should be short and sweet instead of simply following academic tradition with twelve week courses that inevitably suffer from very low completion rates, no matter how good the course material and pedagogical approach.

"Why not take a fresh look? Internal Coursera data shows that drawn-out classes consistently suffer from higher dropout rates. The actual teaching may be impeccable. But as Ng puts it, "life gets in the way" for many of Coursera's students. The site attracts learners in all walks of life, from cab drivers to corporate vice presidents. Full-time students represent only a minority of the overall enrollee population. So class-takers typically struggle to clear out time in the midst of on-the-job demands, business travel, family illnesses and car repairs."

The global success of TED talks is further proof of our preference for shorter chunks of input. The 10-15 minute lecture can captivate and inspire in a way that the traditional academic 45-60 minute version patently fails to do. Shorter courses or modularisation of longer courses provide clear short-term goals for even the busiest learners. Many campus courses are also being divided into bite-sized chunks by awarding badges for successful completion thereby encouraging students to focus on one step at a time. Learning - one bite at a time.

See also George Anders' article in ForbesCoursera's Online Insight: Short Classes Are Education's Future.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quality and openness

An article in Inside Higher Ed, Puzzling peer reviews, highlights supposed dangers of open access publications. John Bohannon of Harvard University wrote a deliberately flawed biology article using a fictitious name and non-existent institution and submitted it to over 300 open access publications. It was accepted by about half of them (read a longer description of the experiment can be found in ScienceWho's afraid of peer review?). The article was written as part of a survey to see how much peer review was involved in the rapidly expanding open access journal market and the results cast a serious shadow over many of them. It contained serious scientific flaws that would be obvious to any academic in the field so the journals who accepted it had clearly not carried out any sort of serious peer review. Interestingly it was not only obscure journals that failed the test, even journals run by the big academic publishers fell for the trap.

"Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which the paper's topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction."

This is clearly unacceptable, though I find it hard to believe that so many people would fail to at least check the credentials of Ocorrafoo Cobange of the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. The basic principles of Howard Rheingold's Crap detection seem to have been overlooked here (Is this a credible source? What other publications come from this person/institution?). But does this mean that the open model is inherently flawed and that the traditional closed journal system is more credible?

All journals, open or closed, rely on peer review for the credibility of their publication. In neither model do the reviewers get paid for their services so the crucial factors must be the integrity and experience of the reviewers and the rigour of the process. Those were clearly lacking in the journals that accepted this fake article but I wonder what the success rate would have been if submitted to a large number of traditional journals. I suspect that even there there are some whose quality assurance processes are inadequate.

This is not really an openness issue but more a quality issue that can affect any publication open or closed. Those whose peer review and editing routines are not sufficiently rigorous will lose credibility. The reason so many open access journals seemed to fail this particular test could be because there are so many new journals on the scene who are still trying to establish themselves and have not developed quality assurance routines in their peer review processes. There are of course many extremely dubious publications out there, often based in developing countries but with titles that begin with "The American Journal of ...". These offer publication at a price and often succeed in luring academics into paying for publication. These deserve to be named and shamed as they are in Jeffrey Beall's List of predatory publishers 2013.

However it is important that we are not be tempted into thinking that openness means poor quality. The two are simply not related as David Wiley points out in an article, On quality and OER. Copyright or a price tag are no guarantees of good quality, whether we're talking about educational resources or academic publications. There are excellent open resources and excellent proprietary resources and their excellence depends on quality assurance routines and professionalism.

"Because quality is not necessarily a function of copyright status, neither traditionally copyrighted educational materials nor openly licensed educational materials can exclusively claim to be “high quality.” There are terrific commercial textbooks and there are terrific OER. There are also terrible commercial textbooks and terrible OER. Local experts must vet the quality of whatever resources they choose to adopt, and cannot abdicate this responsibility to publishing houses or anyone else."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

MOOCs - copyright confusion

In an ideal world where educators and institutions share resources with Creative Commons licenses that regulate reuse and adaptation there would be no problems with digital rights in MOOCs. The original connectivist MOOCs were all based on open educational resources and participants were well versed in the principles of openness. However the newer MOOC variations come in 50 shades of openness and there are suddenly complex copyright issues that participating institutions and educators need to be aware of.

There's a timely reminder of these issues in an Educause article entitled Copyright Challenges in a MOOC Environment. The article is the result of interviews with university leaders and legal experts about agreements with MOOC providers. Copyright agreements within a university regarding teachers' rights to their material may not apply when the course is globally distributed as a MOOC. Some material that may be used for educational purposes within the confines of a campus course may not be used when freely available on line. Some MOOC providers claim copyright on the content of the MOOCs they distribute.

"Each MOOC provider, for example, establishes a proprietary claim on material included in its courses, licenses to the user the terms of access and use of that material, and establishes its ownership claim of user-generated content. This conflicts with the common institutional policy approach that grants rights to faculty who develop a course. Fair-use exceptions to traditional copyright protection face challenges as well, given a MOOC’s potential for global reach."

If a university offers an open MOOC with the best of intentions and then offers the course via a MOOC consortium, that openness may be threatened. If that consortium sells the MOOC to other universities in a sort of franchising agreement the consortium will profit from selling rights that are inherently open. If money is made from a MOOC then shouldn't those responsible for creating the content get some kind of reward too?

An even more problematic area is that of user-generated content; the assignments that students submit for evaluation on the course forum or other repositories. Are those contributions automatically the property of the MOOC provider and are students aware of this? If you're taking a for-credit MOOC and you submit a longer paper for assessment who does that work belong to: the MOOC provider, the university or the student? Can the MOOC provider use student material from one course on future courses? The article raises many interesting questions that cannot be fully answered today but it concludes by stating that the legal discussion about MOOCs is inevitable given the pioneering nature of the movement.

"MOOCs present complex copyright questions that can challenge the relationship between the institution and its faculty and students. Creation of and/or participation in MOOCs do not always fit comfortably within the terms of standard institutional policies. Involving all stakeholders in open and flexible discussions should enhance the development of a shared copyright vision in the emerging MOOC environment for the greater benefit of higher education today."

The moral of the story is that universities need to consider very carefully the legal implications of  an agreement with a MOOC provider and discuss concerns openly before committing. It's going to take time to establish a new framework and maybe new perspectives of digital rights will emerge. The crucial factor is that all parties discuss as openly as possible and try to find answers to all these questions.

Monday, October 7, 2013

E-mail generation

E-mail is the default tool for digital communication in most organisations. You simply can't work without it and since most people have mobile access to their work account the mails just keep rolling in 24/7. The sheer volume of e-mail leads to considerable stress and I've seen colleagues with over 100 unread mails in their inbox. Even if most users complain about the volume and have problems clearing the backlog very few dare to use other services even if they are patently better at doing some of the jobs that e-mail fails to do. We somehow see e-mail as more trustworthy than other types of communication such as instant messaging, shared work spaces or collaborative documents despite the often-reported fact that over 90% of all e-mail is spam and so many viruses, trojans and other malware are transmitted by e-mail. It's a complicated love-hate relationship.

Students however have abandoned e-mail, according to an article the New York Times, Technology and the College Generation. Students seldom check their student e-mail accounts and this leads to a communication breakdown between them and their e-mail generation teachers and administrators. In the past there were often complaints about the university forcing students to use university accounts rather than letting them use their own private e-mail addresses but today's students don't even have an e-mail account. Some only have an account because many services like booking concert tickets or downloading a game demand an address in order to register. Using e-mail for communication is virtually unknown.

So students have abandoned e-mail whilst most people over 25 is hooked on it. That doesn't mean we're any good at using it. We misuse e-mail all the time, using it for tasks it simply is no good at. Most people still edit texts by mailing dozens of updated copies back and forth to each other when Google Drive or other collaborative tools do the job so much better. Many meetings take 50 e-mails to arrange (all using the dreaded Reply all button) instead of using a service like Doodle. Long discussions between members of a group (using Reply all to a group of thirty members) can fill your inbox in no time when the whole debate would be more efficiently run in a discussion forum.

The article also points out that faculty use of e-mail is not exactly exemplary:

“Faculty and staff love to blame students for not checking e-mail instead of owning up to the fact that no one ever got that good at using e-mail in the first place,” he said, citing vague subject lines and (exaggerating to make his point) 36-paragraph e-mails from faculty in which the crucial information is in paragraph 27. “How are they going to learn to use e-mail when that’s the model, and why would they want to?”

E-mail, like most tools, is good for some things and not so good at other things. Over the last 15 years we've used it for just about every type of transaction. Maybe we should listen to the students and try new ways of communicating, leaving e-mail to deal with what it's good at. Maybe if we were less addicted to it the spammers might also have top reconsider.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Integrating the e- into learning - EFQUEL Innovation Forum 2013

Open University of Catalonia
This year's EFQUEL Innovation Forum 2013 was held at the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona 26-27 September. This is always an enjoyable event and being on the EFQUEL board and the programme committee I am kept pretty busy before and during the conference. This year's conference had the theme Refocusing quality in e-learning and the aim of reviewing the progress made so far in defining quality in the field as well as examining quality criteria for new areas of open education, in particular MOOCs.

My highlights of the conference
  • We are at last moving from a divided view of quality in education (traditional/e-learning) to a single concept of learning and teaching. Representatives of the major European higher education organisations ENQAEUAEURASHE and ESUwere all active contributors and ready to start a common discussion about how the area of e-learning quality can be integrated into traditional quality assurance criteria for higher education. This feels like a major breakthrough and hopefully specialist e-learning quality organisations will be able to contribute actively to the development of mainstream quality assurance in higher education.
  • MOOCs have taken the discussion of e-learning into the spotlight and will force even the most traditional universities to review the way they use technology and focus on quality. Even if MOOCs are mostly about informal learning the hype has made universities think about how they work with online learning in general and MOOC lessons will be applied to campus courses.
  • The tyranny of university ranking systems that focus only on high profile research universities could soon be over as new more comprehensive ranking systems that include vital criteria such as quality of teaching, student satisfaction, internationalisation and regional engagement. One such system was highlighted in Barcelona, U-Multirank.
    MOOCathon in progress
  • The three session long MOOCathon that I ran together with my board colleagues Ulf Ehlers and Ebba Ossiannilsson was a success with all seats taken all the way. My fears that it would be like a real MOOC with standing room only at the start and then only a handful left at the end proved to be unfounded though we did have a number of participants who opted in and out during the day but the total number remained fairly constant. We are now compiling and reviewing all the ideas and comments from the session for a new post on the MOOC Quality Project site and hope to write an article about the whole process in the near future.
  • Isn't it time for us to review and redefine our own terminology? We all use terms like e-learning, net-based learning, distance learning, online learning, technology enhanced learning etc sometimes interchangeably. If we are not clear about what we mean it's no wonder that other people get confused. Let's work together and define our terminology. At the same time I hope we can soon dump MOOC as a confusingly all-embracing term for many different types of learning arena.

Main conference hall
Some good quotes

  • How can openness contribute to a quality learning experience rather than be seen as a second rate option? - Ulf Ehlers, President EFQUEL.
  • The quality of online education and provisions are pivotal to the quality of an institution - Josep Planell, Vice Chancellor Open University of Catalonia.
  • MOOCs will lead to higher quality in for-credit university education.- Sir John Daniel, Commonwealth of Learning.
  • MOOCs can stimulate elearning if institutions develop policies for online teaching and execute them determinedly.- Sir John Daniel
  • Don’t assume that students are automatically attracted to online learning. They want something that will get them where they want to go. - Sir John Daniel
  • Recognition of prior experiential learning must be included in QA.- Guy Haug
  • E-learning is not the revolution. The real revolution is in teaching. - Josep Grifoll, ENQA
  • National QA Agencies don't consider e-learning priority, since its not in legislation. - Josep Grifoll
  • Quality Assurance labels should be included in EQAR together with QAAs. - Josep Griffoll
  • There is no such thing as the best car, wine or university in the world - Jon File, U-Multirank
  • The digital revolution in education is actually about moving to choice based education - are we fit for the choice based mode? - Antonio Teixeira, President EDEN

  • Let's hope the momentum can be maintained and we can have more detailed discussions next year when we meet in Crete, 7-9 May.

    I also made a Scoopit magazine for the conference with many of the presentations and related articles as well as a selection of mini interviews I did with some of the key speakers and other participants.