Tuesday, April 29, 2014

OER and linguistic diversity

Atypical welcome by quinn.anya, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by quinn.anya on Flickr

The spread of English as the language of the world has certainly been accelerated thanks to digital media and it could be argued that this threatens to wipe out many smaller languages, some teetering on the brink of extinction. András Kornai describes this danger in an article, Digital Language Death, showing how many languages have a very low digital presence. Even if enthusiasts have accomplished much to create for example a Wikipedia presence for many smaller languages  Kornai argues that this will not be enough to create a community strong enough to help push the language truly into the digital space:

Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken today, some 2,500 are generally considered endangered. Here we argue that this consensus figure vastly underestimates the danger of digital language death, in that less than 5% of all languages can still ascend to the digital realm. We present evidence of a massive die-off caused by the digital divide.”

At the same time technology could also empower many of these threatened languages and cultures that have been marginalised in the past. Could the development of open educational resources (OER) be a key to empowerment for smaller languages? This was the theme of a workshop, International workshop on policy for OER and less used languages, run by ICDE (International Council for Open and Distance Education) along with two projects I'm associated with, NordicOER and LangOER. This gathered an impressive cast of OER experts, stakeholders and policy makers to discuss how the development of quality OER and open educational practices can strengthen the position of such languages. For a full programme of the speakers and further details, have a look at the ICDE article on the workshop.

Workshop in progress (Photo CC-BY Tore Hoel)
UNESCO is one of the main driving forces behind the global uptake of OER, emphasizing the right for free and open access to knowledge to all people in all languages. Their representative in this workshop, Abel Caine, gave several examples of recent initiatives, especially the 2012 UNESCO OER Paris declaration calling on all member governments to make all educational materials produced with public funds freely available to all. This has resulted in many national and regional initiatives such as Indonesia (national OER policy) and West Africa. See more in the UNESCO OER Programme.

The development of OER as well as open courses (not necessarily MOOCs) has opened new opportunities to offer extremely narrow courses in places where they would previously never have existed. An open online course in, say, Welsh for beginners can attract students from all over the world, something that no traditional university course could ever do. I once read about a guy in the midwest of the USA who wanted to play the Scottish bagpipes. The chance of a local college running that sort of course was less than zero but on the net it was no problem and soon he was getting tuition via Skype from a teacher in Scotland. Many languages have rallied round the creation of their own Wikipedia and involved a large section of the community to develop the entries. There are countless sunshine stories like this showing how local languages and culture can become glocal. Alan Tait talked of OER as the long tail of education whereby resources of extremely limited interest can still be always available in a similar way to the global scale and reach of Amazon can store book titles that no single bookstore could afford to keep on the shelves.

Some takeaways from the workshop:

  • It’s not what you share, it’s how you share it. Share for reuse, include source code, provide a declaration of contents and purpose and systematic tagging and other metadata.
  • See OER more as data to be adapted than as finished learning objects.
  • Open standards, collaboration and search skills allow anyone to study anything from anywhere.
  • Infrastructure must support process, not just output.

But can open education contribute to strengthening smaller languages and cultures? Despite the overwhelming advance of English I believe there are opportunities for less used languages (however you define that vague concept) to gain much more legitimacy and impact than was possible before. It requires concerted effort but this can become a community building process galvinising all generations to contribute to preserving and developing the language and culture. Simply translating existing English resources is not enough, new resources that are relevant to the community must be developed and this is a creative rather than simply a reproductive process. Successful models from the English-speaking world can be adapted to local requirements. Teachers and students can collaborate to produce open textbooks and other educational resources that few if any traditional publishers would see as commercially viable. Open courses can be offered to a worldwide audience including speakers who have long since emigrated from their homeland. Smaller languages can help each other by sharing development costs, collaborating in cross-cultural projects to develop multilingual solutions and suchlike.

ICDE will soon publish the full results of the workshop and the LangOER project will be investigating the area of language and OER in more detail in the next three years. Stay tuned.

Have a look at my colleague, Tore Hoel's blog post on the topic:
Adopting OER for less used languages: We need hard talk on tools and infrastructure!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The fundamental things apply ...

Magnifying Glass by Auntie P, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by Auntie P

Technology is driving radical changes in how we approach learning and education and this demands that students develop new skill sets to be able to work and learn in a world dominated by the application of digital technology. The question is how many of these digital skills are really uniquely digital and how many are adaptations of established principles? Aren't we often talking about fundamental skills and competences but applied in a digital context? Is being a good digital citizen so much different from being a good citizen?

An article by Sam Stecher in EdReach caught my eye this week, The Myth Of Digital Citizenship And Why We Need To Teach It Anyway. He questions whether the concept of digital citizenship is so different from just good citizenship:

The reason why is because there is no such thing as digital citizenship. It’s just citizenship. The rules don’t change just because you have a screen in front of you.

Perceived classroom problems with multitasking students is not essentially a digital issue. Students have always written notes to each other, doodled, daydreamed and messed around when the lesson becomes dull and the issue is one of classroom management rather than about digital technology. Similarly they can of course find irrelevant or misleading information on the net but they could find equally irrelevant material in the libraries and bookstores of the past unless they asked for help or had developed the skill of source criticism. The basic principles of good citizenship, argues Stecher, apply equally in the analogue and digital world; namely Is your use respectful, responsible, and safe? Whether the medium is digital or not the principles are the same. Taking control of your digital identity is all about showing respect for others' feelings and integrity, taking responsibility for your own actions and taking action to ensure the security of your passwords, profiles and keeping safe from virus attacks and suchlike.

The difference is that technology acts as a magnifying glass. Careless comments used to reach only a few ears and the damage could be controlled with a quick apology, whereas today such comments can go viral in minutes and can have disastrous consequences, destroying reputations and careers. Today everything digital is social and once you release a tweet, a Facebook comment, a photo or a film it's out of your control. We have extremely powerful tools in our hands and it takes time to learn to use them wisely. If there is a concept of digital citizenship it involves learning to apply these basic principles of respect, responsibility, critical thinking and reflection and applying them through the highly magnified digital lens.

The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

LMS - from red giant to white dwarf?

White Dwarf by dawe2k5, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by dawe2k5

Learning Management Systems like Moodle, Blackboard and many others are the backbone of almost all universities' and schools' use of educational technology. However there is increasing interest among teachers and students in using free and open social media for discussion, collaboration and production. The LMS designers have responded by integrating social media into the platform, thus retaining the one-stop shop status of the LMS. This one-stop shop model (or walled garden in the eyes of its critics) has its advantages in that students get access to all the course resources in one place but despite this students still tend to discuss and collaborate elsewhere.

This is the subject of an article in eLearn Magazine, Outside the LMS box: An interview with Ashley Tan. Dr. Ashley Tan is head of the Centre for e-Learning (CeL) at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore and has been studying students' use and non-use of LMS. He sees a clear move by students away from the LMS towards social media and that this is tied to a need for more genuine interactivity and sharing than is normally seen inside the LMS.

However, both the instructors and the students seem to be unhappy with the LMS because it is a closed system and less user-friendly than other tools or platforms. Over the last three years, the use of the LMS for social learning has dropped to 50 percent among our serious users of the platform, and the more innovative instructors have moved to open social platforms like Google Sites and Facebook. The use of our LMS is mostly for relatively low-level tasks: content repository, basic online communication, and assignment submission.

 Tan sees the LMS model as focusing too much on content delivery, assignment submission and assessment and offering little to encourage interaction.

When blending learning with an LMS, instructors and eLearning practitioners often focus on content repositories or delivery. The didactic model is dominant. When blending learning with open and social systems, the focus tends to shift to interaction and negotiation. The facilitative model comes to the fore.

So instead of the LMS growing into a red giant offering everything under one roof the tendency is for it to shrink into a white dwarf, used for certain crucial functions and letting the more interactive activities take place outside. Although I agree with Tan's conclusions I don't see the LMS disappearing any time soon. Many students are certainly quite comfortable using a variety of tools and platforms and can certainly handle the diversity of the solution described in the article. However there are also students who appreciate the simplicity of having everything in one place and lack the confidence and digital skills necessary to use a variety of social media. It's a similar situation to the MOOC discussion; the linear and more traditional courses provided by the main MOOC providers appeal to students who need more order and structure whereas the connectivist MOOCs appeal to digitally proficient and self-sufficient learners.

I don't think the red giant model will apply to the LMS. Instead I see them as heading to the white dwarf stage, concentrating on what they do best; offering a secure administrative core for a course where sensitive data such as students identity and examination results are stored. The discussions and interaction can then take place mostly outside the LMS but all examination material must be linked or imported for archiving.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Of MOOCs and dragons

Sometimes I read an article or listen to a lecture and just nod enthusiastically all the way through. That was my reaction listening to this excellent defence of the whole MOOC movement by Donald Clark, The decentralisation and democratisation of learning. He goes through the list of frequently voiced criticisms (low completion rates, poor pedagogy, business models, low interaction with teachers) and answers them convincingly. I've written about them all here many times (85 posts on this blog with the tag MOOC so far) but it's good to get everything condensed into a lecture of just under 24 minutes.

This ties in nicely with a new article by Dan Butin in Inside Higher Ed, From MOOCs to dragons, that discusses how MOOCs are evolving into much more sophisticated learning arenas that will soon challenge the exclusive and increasingly over-priced campus model. Dan sees three disruptive factors that will lead to a new model for higher education: automated assessment, adaptive learning, and data analytics. As these become increasingly advanced they will offer low-cost and scalable solutions to processes that are at present expensive and time-consuming in the traditional system. These developments can be seen optimistically as a way of offering personalized education for all or pessimistically leading to faculty job losses and a shift of education into the arms of big business. His basic message is that we must sail off the map into the dragon-infested unknown.

Nevertheless, I believe we are at a new moment exactly because forthcoming digital learning technologies will create educational models that mirror and improve current educational practices at a scale and pace impossible before now. So grab your life vest, power up your Google Maps app, and beware of the dragons ahead.

Just watch the lecture and read the article.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Skimming and diving - the art of reading

Are we really forgetting the art of reading? We are if you follow the media discussion that has been going on for several years now. The problem is that we have all become so used to skimming, scanning and zapping from site to site and channel to channel that we find it increasingly hard to simply read a book. This is the gist of an article in the Washington Post, Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say, which reports on concern from researchers that the art of deep reading is being lost in the blur of multitasking.

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

The new skills of scanning for information, checking other sources and quickly gaining an overview are of course essential but the big question is how to relearn slow reading? We need to learn to be biliterate; being able to quickly scan and skim for information as well as being able to concentrate on deep reading without distractions. The problem with reading on a tablet or laptop is that there are so many other fun things you can do. While you're reading it's so easy to check for any new posts on Facebook or respond to a tweet. It's often hard to switch the distractions off. A book on the other hand has no distractions, not even a photo, and we're simply not used to that anymore. The article gives several examples of even researchers who find it almost impossible to sit down and read a classic novel without getting itchy fingers reaching for the smartphone, just to check if I'm missing something.

The need to focus on deep reading in schools and colleges is certainly there but I wonder if things are as bad as such articles claim. We are multitasking more than ever but at the same time the sales of fiction (both print and digital format) are booming and the phenomenal sales of the Harry Potter series, fantasy literature and vampire fiction show that teenagers certainly do read lengthy works of fiction without any distractions. However I like the concept of building biliteracy and the importance of knowing when to skim and when to dive.

Read more on this theme in a new article in the Guardian, The internet isn't harming our love of 'deep reading', it's cultivating it.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Turning point in Estonia

This week I was invited to Tallinn, Estonia, speak at the annual conference of HITSA (Information Technology Foundation for Education), a national organization for the development of educational technology: initiating, coordinating and facilitating activities and developments in the field of ICT-supported learning in Estonian higher and vocational education. It was held in the impressive Mektory innovation centre of the Tallinn University of Technology and attracted over 200 delegates from schools and universities. My contribution consisted of a keynote speech on the future of MOOCs (see video at MOOCs - from hype to opportunity) and an overview of the development of OER in the Nordic region (Nordic OER) focusing on three projects I am involved in: NordicOER, OER Sverige and LangOER. Here is a short summary of my impressions from two intensive days.

Estonia is well known as a country that has invested in the use of educational technology, it is of course the home of Skype. They have also made some wise choices in the development of educational technology, for example establishing a consortium offering all educational institutions access to a national installation of the learning management system Moodle and thereby saving institutions enormous amounts of time and money running their own installations. In recent years two national repositories for open learning resources have been set up: one for higher education and one for schools, Kooleilu. Now a new education strategy has just been published by the government (only in Estonian just now), written in broad consultation with all stakeholders. The implementation of digital technologies is one of the key issues in the new strategy. The motto of the strategy is "Learning is a way of life" (Öppimme on eluviis) and it stresses that it is not just about buying new technology but about changing the way we work, study and learn (see article 2014 Estonian lifelong learning strategy is called smart people. A partnership with Finland has recently been announced (see press release) to create a common cloud for storing OER at all educational levels and giving access to other global repositories. The aim is to offer a mix of open and commercial resources with quality assurance criteria. Government will also sponsor the development of quality resources with the cooperation of publishers. Heli Mattisen (EKKA Quality Assessment Council) presented the main aims of the new strategy and stressed the importance of raising the skill sets of teachers, increasing the professionalism of school leadership and implementing new rating systems for schools based on skills criteria rather than simply test results.

The sessions were full of examples of how educational technology is being integrated into Estonian education as well as highlighting international perspectives and trends. Here are a few highlights I'll take away with me:
  • Sixth grade pupils from Gustav Adolf Grammar School in Tallinn presented their perspective on learning and teaching. Their key factors for effective learning were attention, collaboration, respect and active learning. Not to mention a lot of creativity and fun. 
  • There is too much spent on technology for teaching content and nothing spent on helping learning. We need to use technology for learning. Technology can be used in four stages: to exchange, to enrich, to enhance and to empower. Most attention is still on exchanging; using technology to reproduce traditional processes. (Bob Harrison, Education adviser, Toshiba Information Systems UK)
  • We need new spaces for learning to cater for self-regulated learners and flexible teachers. The learners set the objectives and select strategies for learning. The teacher has to become a researcher in the widest sense of the term. (Margus Pedaste, University of Tartu) 
  • ICT use in schools is still dominated by presentation tools like PowerPoint and interactive social tools are very seldom used. We need innovative teachers, innovative schools and innovative education systems. We have to empower teachers to develop, nurture innovation and strengthen the evidence base of new practices. (Marc Durando, European Schoolnet)
  • If it's not digital it has no value. (Tiit Paananen, Association of IT and telecommunications)
  • Kids aren’t all the cool digital natives that the media portray them as. There are digital divides there and many are vulnerable and need guidance. (John Carr, European NGO Alliance for child safety online www.enacso.eu)
  • Hans Pöldoja, Tallinn University, presented his work with open badges on an open course, Preparation for digital learning, and the value of such badges as motivators on open courses without formal credits as rewards.
  • Most classroom time is on the bottom two layers of Bloom’s taxonomy and then we send them home to deal with the upper levels without access to the teacher. Flipping the classroom involves doing the demanding work in class and the lower levels at home. (John Bergmann, Flipped classroom
  • Innovations happen outside established institutions. (Steve Taylor, From Start-Up to Stay-Up)
Finally a very positive feature of the conference was the availability of simultaneous translation so that I and other foreign visitors could follow sessions in Estonian and the Estonians could follow our contributions. This wasn't available in the practical workshops that took place away from the main hall so I wasn't able to participate in them. They certainly looked like fun!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Feeding the blogs

Three Hungry Baby Barn Swallows by mclcbooks, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by mclcbooks

The first of April is the one day of the year where most people have a high level of source criticism. You really have to check your sources and question everything. Most of the jokes are easy to spot but one that nearly caught me out was Steve Wheeler's farewell to blogging, Goodbye. Steve is one of the most prolific and most read edtech bloggers and the idea of him quitting blogging is rather hard to swallow. However he made a very convincing case; describing how blogging was affecting his private life and causing such stress that he could no longer justify it. I was actually just about to tweet the link with a sympathetic comment when I stopped and realised what day it was and that the post did contain some rather odd references to things like telepathy as an alternative to blogging. Normal service was resumed with a new post from Steve today (Seriously, 2 April) where the advantages of blogging far outweigh the disadvantages. The 1 April post was not so much a joke as an attempt to provoke a discussion about the role of the academic blogger.

The original post did resonate with me however. My blogs are not in the same league as Steve's in terms of readership but they do exert considerable pressure on my home life. Once you've built up a readership and set your own pace of how often you publish it is very hard to break the routine. I have built up a whole ecosystem around monitoring what's going on in the field of e-learning and then writing about it on blogs, in articles and various websites. For several years I've been keeping my hungry blogs well-fed and satisfied with this blog getting one or two posts a week and my Swedish news blog, Flexspan, getting 4-7 posts a week. Based on that I have a newsletter (in Swedish) that goes out every Monday with highlights from the week. Completely away from work I even have a third blog, about beekeeping, that demands regular postings. Hungry mouths indeed!

Once you get into that level of production it's mighty hard to break the habit and if you do, you get messages from people wondering if something is wrong. So I recognize the pressure Steve wrote about and the potential for stress that comes from setting a high level of production. Strange isn't it that if I had a boss who demanded this I would probably complain but I've created this all by myself and completely outside working hours. At the same time I realize that my blogs and other social media activities have completely changed my work. By sharing my thoughts and helping to spread others' good ideas I have built up a global network of colleagues who have invited my into interesting projects which have resulted in being invited to speak at conferences and join even more projects. I've visited places I could never have imagined visiting as part of my work and it keeps on developing. For me blogging has opened up a whole new world and even if I find it a strain now and then to think of what to write or to keep to my production schedule it's been well worth the effort.