Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Someone to watch over me

One of the main arguments for online education is that it allows you to study at your own pace. Course material, asynchronous discussion and collaborative tools let you study whenever you want and wherever you are. This works for those who have the necessary self-discipline and study skills but it could be claimed that this flexibility is the Achilles heel of online education. Most people lack the necessary skills to take advantage of online education and as long as those skills are not developed in schools, adult and vocational education this mismatch will continue.

Laura Vanderkam questions whether we are overestimating our self-study skills in her article on Fast CompanyCan people really learn at their own pace?. The article's focus is on corporate training but the conclusions are relevant even to higher education and in particular MOOCs. An increasing amount of training is carried out online and the flexibility and scalability of online training clearly appeals to top management since it allows training to take place whenever the staff have time and does not demand costly formal training days. However when left to our own devices it's hard to prioritise online learning since there are always more pressing tasks that demand attention. Independent online learning can work if there is a clear link to tangible career-enhancing rewards or you have high internal motivation. Otherwise it's hard to keep up the momentum and the result is that we drop out or slowly fade out of the course. I suspect that many of the people who fail to complete a MOOC simply didn't have the positive momentum that is provided by clear rewards, supportive teachers and a sense of belonging to a learning community.

Even if I feel perfectly comfortable with independent self-study I still find it hard to stay focused on an online course. I have a number of self-study projects that I start up with great enthusiasm but which fade away after a few weeks of admirable concentration. I've started studying many new languages this way acquiring a few basics but then when it gets more complicated I tend to find other things to do instead. A couple of years ago I signed up for a very traditional evening course in Arabic for beginners with the aim of at least learning the alphabet and basic phrases. The teacher was friendly but the teaching methods were extremely old-fashioned and uninspiring. I achieved my objectives mostly due to self-study but what kept me going was the "fear" of not keeping up with the class and "disappointing" the teacher. Despite my advancing years I became a schoolboy again and the simple motivation of not wanting to be worst in the class meant that I kept studying during the week. There was no interest in a continuation course so I thought I could go on independently using all the open learning opportunities I write so often about. The problem was that there was noone to impress, no class to keep up with, no teacher to please. It sounds incredibly childish but it points to a key problem with self-study.

The challenge for all online education, including MOOCs, is providing the support, encouragement, challenge and sense of common purpose needed to keep learners on track. I don't think it matters so much whether you meet a teacher face-to-face or online but most of us need to feel that someone is watching over us and has expectations. That person is often a teacher but it could also be a peer group. The most important factor is that someone out there wants me to succeed and wants to check how I'm getting on. Someone to watch over me.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Your book just tweeted

I always like to find examples of how digital and analogue can interact with and complement each other and that there is not always a conflict between the two. Penguin Books in Brazil have gained considerable media attention recently by releasing a smart bookmark that communicates with you via Twitter (see article in Springwise, Smart bookmark lets authors tweet at readers who have neglected their novel). The premise is that we are so distracted by social media today that it's easy to start a book and then forget it. Now the book gets a voice in the digital cacophany.

The concept is well demonstrated in the video below but basically it's a physical bookmark that contains a light sensor, timer and a nano-processor with wifi. You leave it in your book and if you don't open the book for a while the bookmark will tweet you a gentle, witty reminder in the style of the book's author. If you still don't pick up your book you will continue to receive regular reminders. Exactly how the tweets come in the style of the book's author is not explained in the articles I have read but I suspect that each book comes with its own bookmark preloaded with that author's potential reminders. You probably can't use that bookmark in any other book though an interesting development could be allowing the bookmark to register the new book via its barcode.

Yet another example of the internet of things where just about everything in our lives will be able to communicate.

PENGUIN BOOKS | Case Tweet For a Read from Rafael Gonzaga on Vimeo.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Learning is about relationships - and it's complicated

network by michael.heiss, on Flickr
CC BY-NC-SA Some rights reserved by michael.heiss 
An article by David L. Kirp in the New York Times, Teaching is not a business, criticizes two high-profile trends: the market approach to education with a focus on accountability, testing and league tables as well as the over-belief in disruptive technology. Turning schools and colleges into competitive businesses may be a politically popular strategy but he sees little evidence that it actually works. Competition simply widens the gap between winners and losers and strangles the vital roles of collaboration, community and support.

Firing teachers, rather than giving them the coaching they need, undermines morale. In some cases it may well discourage undergraduates from pursuing careers in teaching, and with a looming teacher shortage as baby boomers retire, that’s a recipe for disaster. Merit pay invites rivalries among teachers, when what’s needed is collaboration. Closing schools treats everyone there as guilty of causing low test scores, ignoring the difficult lives of the children in these schools — “no excuses,” say the reformers, as if poverty were an excuse.

This marketization of education is a quick fix that is easy to understand and provides superficial evidence of success with "good" schools and colleges rising to the top and "bad" ones closing down. The underlying factors behind students' underachievement are seldom given much attention.

While these reformers talk a lot about markets and competition, the essence of a good education — bringing together talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum — goes undiscussed.

Although the article deals mainly with the problems of treating education as a market the author also sees technology as a similar smokescreen that prevents us from dealing with the real issues in education. All the focus is on new tools and devices and far too little attention is given to discussing teacher development, student support and building a culture of learning. Despite my interest in e-learning and the role of technology in education I don't believe that it is the answer to better education. No amount of mobiles, laptops, tablets, social media, MOOCs or open educational resources will lead to better learning because learning is fundamentally about relationships. Many of the most crucial elements of learning are intangible: a sense of belonging, a safe and supportive environment with teachers and colleagues who inspire and support you, giving you regular feedback and challenging you. Technology however can help to create such a supportive environment.

Technology is important because it is so embedded in our workplaces and everyday life that to ignore it would risk making our education system irrelevant. Technology enables us to collaborate in ways that were simply not possible before and gives all schools access to knowledge and resources that were previously locked away or only accessible to a privileged few. The key question today is how do we create positive and supportive learning environments both in the classroom and online. There's a lot of focus on the drop-out rates in online courses but millions drop out of classroom education; even if they are still physically in the room they have dropped out mentally. Let's forget these endless and pointless discussions about whether classroom is better than online and look at how to make all forms of education more supportive, inclusive and empowering. All forms of education can be effective if the teachers and students are given the support and tools they need.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Unbundling and rebundling education

Lego Porn by EJP Photo, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by EJP Photo

A popular theme of the last few years has been the unbundling of higher education. This refers to the move from the all-inclusive model where a university offers degree programmes, courses, examination, support, tutoring, guidance etc to the unbundled model where a wide range of different institutions, companies and networks offer different parts of the package and students have the option of customizing their education. This has prompted much discussion on the advent of do-it-yourself education and a new educational ecosystem where the learner is free to choose the learning path that is most suitable. I have often written on this topic here and see many advantages with the unbundling process; enabling greater learner participation, widening access to education, offering more choice and greater flexibility.

Now even the notion of a course is being unbundled, as illustrated in an article by Jeffrey R Young in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Are Courses Outdated? MIT Considers Offering ‘Modules’ Instead. Noting that MOOCs work best when broken into short modules of 1-2 weeks, MIT are investigating offering a wide range of short modules that can be assembled by students into courses using a similar logic to the playlists we create for our online music. Both online and campus courses could be modularized according to the article and the benefits of this move are summarized as:
  • Students could retake any module they have trouble with before moving to the next concept in a sequence.
  • A modular approach would make it easier for professors to teach a course together, since faculty members could tackle a section rather than a whole course.
  • Updating a module when new information emerges is easier than redesigning an entire course.
Maybe this is not as revolutionary as it seems since a modular courses have been around for a long time. The difference today is the potential option to mix modules from different institutions though that would require the modules to conform to common quality criteria and for learners to be highly skilled in selecting suitable learning paths.

The problem with unbundling is that in the end it simply becomes too confusing to handle and the learner becomes paralyzed in an overwhelming abundance of choice. The pendulum starts then to swing towards rebundling; helping learners to make the right choices and find a path through the educational jungle. When choice becomes too complex we need someone who can help us to choose. This rebundling movement is introduced in an article in the latest edition of eCampus News, Unbundling and re-bundling in higher education.

... too few are thinking about how to help students make sense of and navigate this emerging, unbundled world and integrate the modular pieces together in ways that help them carve out a coherent and sensible life path. This is critical because it appears that in a personalized learning future, every single learner will have a custom fit educational pathway.

The movement could of course go full circle and the university will provide this rebundling but from a very different perspective from today's. Instead of offering everything under the same roof the future university will guide students to find personalised learning paths using courses or modules from a wide variety of sources, internal and external. If there are recognised quality criteria and metadata for all those resources it will be possible to put them together into a coherent path. The university's role will be as a guarantor of quality and provider of qualified tuition, guidance and mentorship.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Open and closed - students need to learn to handle both

Is there an inverse relation between the use of learning management systems (LMS) and social media in education? There does seem to be a certain conflict since they represent two very different types of learning environment for students. The LMS offers a secure all-inclusive enclosed arena with all services under one roof whereas social media offer a diverse, uncontrolled and highly personalised arena that the school/university has little influence over. The two would seem to be incompatible.

This question is discussed in an article by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, A Threat of Higher Ed's Love Affair with Closed-LMSs. She notes the paradox that the LMS culture is strongest in higher education, where you might expect more freedom and trust, whereas schools, who you would expect to strongly favour controlled environments, are in general more willing to experiment with social media. Schools are working much more with blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other social tools and there are numerous very active discussion groups for teachers on both Facebook and Google+. There are of course similar activities in higher education but I haven't found anything like as many. One concern is that by focusing on the protected LMS environment universities are not really preparing students for their future workplaces many of which are already driven by social media and where it is essential to know how to manage your digital identity and how to use social media responsibly.

One's digital footprint is an opportunity to do be one step ahead in life at graduation. And the continuous reliance on the closed-LMS environment continously constructs a mental model for faculty, instructional designers, administrators, all members of higher education that using social media is, in essence, the wrong thing to do. Moving forward, the mainstream use of closed LMS environments is creating yet another digital divide.

However I feel this simplifies the issue somewhat. While many companies use social media as an integral part of their operations they also have closed environments as well, such as project management tools and internal discussion boards. Students must learn to live in a digital working environment that mixes open and closed depending on the context. Most LMS today provide social media integration and students can move almost seamlessly between LMS functions and public tools and networks. The LMS is no longer the walled garden it is so often accused of being. As usual we shouldn't see this as an either/or issue but we have to learn to work in different environments using the best tools for each job. In an earlier post (LMS - from red giant to white dwarf?) I suggested that the LMS will evolve into a strong core service offering secure storage of student data, assessment and examination whilst discussion, reflection and collaboration take place outside the core in a variety of social media. Both in school and higher education students need to learn to handle both open and closed environments.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

True confessions - digital or analogue?

10:10:10 on 10/10/10 - ”Give Me A Little by Jill Clardy, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Jill Clardy

I often get comments from colleagues that I must spend all my waking hours in front of a screen and do I ever have time for non-digital activities. While I admit to spending a considerable part of each day online and that the borderline between work and leisure time disappeared a long time ago, I thought I'd reveal just how analogue and retro I can be in certain circumstances. So here is my summer confession - I'm not as digital as I might seem.

BOOKS or MOOCs. I write a lot about MOOCs and am fascinated by the whole phenomenon which twists and turns every week. I've tested quite a few (actually completed one of them) and have written over 80 blog posts and several articles on the subject. However I must admit that I'm a book lover and have an ever-expanding library at home. I cannot contemplate not having at least one book on my bedside table and they are mostly non-fiction, generally history or nature. I learn a lot that way and am not prepared to sacrifice my book time to take a MOOC. Another factor that restricts my participation in MOOCs is that I spend so much time reading articles, writing blog posts and articles and engaging in online discussions that I feel I am participating in a never-ending personal MOOC so when I do sign up for a course it gets in the way of my normal work flow. Maybe I could be accused of not practicing what I preach but I like my own personal learning strategy and prefer it to the imposed schedule of a course.

E-books. I should say that books are books and whether they are on paper or on a screen matters very little but although I happily read both formats, there is a crucial difference in favour of paper that is based purely on my collector instinct and probably also a hint of vanity. I like to add a newly read book to my bookshelves (ie trophy cabinet) as evidence of my reading. There's still a certain status and satisfaction of having rows of crammed bookshelves and I can proudly claim to have read at least 90% of the contents. On the other hand no one notices your e-book collection, if indeed you can collect something as intangible. Admittedly this used to be equally true of the music collection that once occupied many shelves but has now completely disappeared into the cloud. Books may well go the same way but I still get great satisfaction out of owning a book rather than simply having access to one. Call me old-fashioned ...

Newspapers and magazines. One of my most important daily rituals is eating breakfast while reading the morning paper. I go through it from start to finish and read whatever seems interesting. Once breakfast is over I rarely look at the paper again. If for some reason there is no morning paper I'm rather lost. I check my iPad instead but it's not the same process. In the paper version I check all the headlines and often come across something interesting that I would never have clicked on in a digital version. I still subscribe to several print magazines each month and I read them from cover to cover (I even save them in long lines of boxes on the bookshelves!). I have cancelled a few subscriptions over the years with the intention of reading them on the net instead but that simply doesn't work. I even subscribed to a wonderful service called Readly which allows you unlimited access to a couple of hundred magazines for a monthly fee of about €10. I cancelled that when I realised I have ever used it. Somehow I have different reading strategies for print and digital formats; I skim/surf through digital content often in a non-linear manner whilst I read print from start to finish and tend to read more deeply. With digital content there are always exciting distractions just a click away whereas when I'm reading print copy those distractions are much further away. I realise there is no good reason why I shouldn't go digital but I don't, not yet anyway.

Tickets. Yes I still print out rail and air tickets and take them on my travels rather than use my mobile. I've tried using my mobile and of course it works but I don't completely trust the battery power of my mobile. If I have my tickets only on the mobile and the battery dies when I need to show the tickets what do I do then? A new mobile might be the answer but I still like to have the "real" tickets with me as a comfort.

I could probably add several more categories but the moral of the story is that we all adapt to the digital world in different ways and the presence of a digital solution does not always mean the end of the "analogue" version. We all find our own mix and that applies both in our private lives and in education. I wish we could move away from pointless arguments about whether digital is better than print, e-learning better than classroom and so on and instead focus on how technology is creating new opportunities.