Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Distance no object – reflections on a study visit to Scotland

Inverness castle and River Ness
Today’s educational technology has the potential to offer education to all. Net-based learning at its best can offer levels of interactivity and collaboration unthinkable only a few years ago and educators are having to revise their ideas of online learning as being largely instructivist self-study. Courses can be offered completely online, face-to-face or in blended or hybrid solutions and distance is becoming less of a issue, at least in technical terms. However attitudes change more slowly than technology and there is still a perceived divide between campus and distance that is preventing many institutions from fully integrating technology and offering truly flexible education where distance is no object.

Last week I saw some interesting and inspiring examples on this theme when I was invited as a guest on a study trip to various Scottish educational organisations with a delegation from the Danish (FLUID) and Norwegian (FuN) associations for flexible learning. I very seldom get the chance to visit my homeland in a professional role so it was an interesting experience to see things from two perspectives; as a native and an international visitor. The delegation consisted of representatives from a wide range of educational institutions: universities, vocational and online training providers, local authorities and consultancies. In only three days we met seven organisations in four cities from Glasgow to Inverness via Edinburgh and Perth.

Here are some of my impressions and reflections on the main themes of the visit.

Work-based learning
Glasgow Caledonian University
The integration of higher education into the workplace is a major global trend, especially at master’s level where students are more independent and able to apply what they learn directly in the work environment. Glasgow Caledonian University is making an impressive mark in this arena with its Scottish Centre for Work Based Learning. The centre designs and delivers tailor-made university programmes for professionals in cooperation with companies. Many of the students applying for these programmes have relevant practical experience and in-company training certificates and need to have these skills recognized and accredited. The unit specialises in the recognition of prior learning for gaining entry to courses and students can study at for a wide range of qualifications up to MSc.

Glasgow Caledonian is the only University in Scotland to offer the opportunity to gain awards by work based learning from Higher Education Certificate through to full MSc. This is achieved by using academic models and theories to frame, analyse and solve real work based problems. We offer these programmes on an individual, group and company basis and although all of these differ to some extent they share the notion that the workplace is the site of knowledge creation and that academic and work based knowledge can be integrated to enrich both the workplace and the University.

The traditional campus concept of university studies is being eroded and augmented to include a wide variety of learning arenas that include the workplace. As this happens universities need to work intensively with developing new methods to validate prior learning and practical skills rather than solely basing admission on formal qualifications. University is wherever you work.

Skills development
At the other end of the scale we visited Skills Development Scotland, a national government agency who provide career and training advice and guidance for young people leaving school with a particular focus on those with few or no formal qualifications. The Scottish government guarantees everyone between 16 and 19 a place on some kind of education or training and SDS offer a range of services both face-to-face and online to help young people take charge of their own future. Via a dedicated online guidance and self-help service, My world of work, young people can search for training opportunities, apprenticeships and courses in a variety of forms, including online training. We also met representatives of Scottish Union Learning, an umbrella organisation that funds education and training for union members, sometimes in cooperation with employers but often outside working hours. This type of training is aimed at improving basic skills but is increasingly offered online given the difficulties of arranging face-to-face training in some industries.

Online learning in this area is still not completely mainstream but its further development is key to making education and training accessible to all. Face-to-face training normally requires a critical mass of students before it can be offered and many people today miss out on training opportunities because they live in the wrong place and are unable to travel to where the training is based. Online delivery means that training is more accessible regardless of location but for many there is a high threshold; they simply lack the digital and study skills to benefit from this form of training. That’s why we need more local support for online learning, learning centres or libraries where people can get practical support and encouragement.

MOOCs as a catalyst for course development
Discussing MOOCs in Edinburgh
It was particularly interesting to visit the University of Edinburgh since I graduated from there in 1980 and our meeting took place in the same building as many of my undergraduate classes and tutorials way back in the seventies. Edinburgh has attracted considerable global interest in its approach to MOOCs with 23 courses so far in two different consortia: Coursera and the UK-based FutureLearn. Incredibly these MOOCs have attracted almost one million people and even if that does not translate into as many course completions it still represents an unprecedented outreach, enhancing the university’s reputation and stimulating the further development of online learning at the university as a whole. They have carefully monitored the courses and have produced detailed reports and analysis that have been widely referred to by researchers and commentators in the field.

The visit further confirmed my conviction that real change in the use of technology in education can only happen when the enthusiasm and energy of faculty pioneers is met by a genuine interest from the top with serious strategies and objectives. When the management clearly understand the issues and creates favourable conditions for innovation and experimentation, as at Edinburgh, things start happening. In this case there was £5 million central strategic funding dedicated to developing online learning, focusing at present on MOOCs and the development of online master’s programmes.

Producing successful MOOCs has stimulated faculty to start looking more carefully at their traditional offerings and there is now a genuine interest to integrate technology into mainstream courses that was missing before. A vital factor behind this success has been that the initiative to start developing a MOOC comes from engaged faculty rather than management asking them to develop a course. A sense of ownership is essential for success and sustainability and this cannot be created when the initiative comes from above. Teachers who want to start a course get central support but they must take charge of the project.

Mainstreaming blended learning

Perth College, one of the UHI campuses
I have long been an admirer of the unique approach of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) to providing university education to students in the sparsely-populated north and west of Scotland. The university is a federation of 13 partner colleges spread around the highlands and islands, each with their own focus areas, providing different mixes of higher and further education as well as hosting university research centres. What impresses me most is that they have succeeded in fully integrating technology into all aspects of the university and the campus/distance distinction is becoming largely irrelevant. Nobody is really a distance student. Students enrol at their nearest college even if the course is run from another college in the UHI federation. Students can therefore study from their home area with their base college providing administrative, technical and certain academic support and the teachers available online. UHI’s geographic range means that digital is central to the whole operation.

UHI Executive Office, Inverness
Another impressive feature at UHI is their Learning and Teaching Academy which offers academic, pedagogical and professional development to faculty. Digital skills are integral to staff development and therefore integrated into all activities. An internal fellowship scheme offers recognition for good teaching and innovative practice and to qualify for a fellowship award a teacher is required to present an e-portfolio of work in the form of digital resources (films, podcasts, articles, course modules etc). Requiring the inclusion of digital material for professional recognition reinforces the central role of technology in the university.

Moving online learning from optional extra to recognised mainstream practice demands understanding and active support from the top management. Technology is an enabler that can widen the reach of education and can help to unite students no matter where they are based. Distance is no longer a handicap and online learning is not a "second best" option. When a university can offer courses to students in many locations using a variety of learning arenas and with both online and face-to-face support available to all we can truly say that distance is no longer an issue.

Read more reflections from this visit on the Flexible Learning Norway website, Look to Scotland.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Open educational practice stimulates less used languages

Click on image to go to the webinar recording
How can open educational practices empower less used and minority languages? This was the question behind a webinar I had the pleasure of moderating a couple of days ago - watch the webinar recording. The webinar was part of the European project LangOER that aims at enhancing the teaching and learning of less used languages through open educational resources and practices. About 70 participants (193 registered) took part in the live event which featured presentations from Sylvi Vigmo (University of Gothenburg, Sweden), Kate Borthwick (University of Southampton, UK) and Anna-Comas Quinn (Open University, UK).

I was particularly interested in the ideas of how openness can empower smaller languages and that we need to think more carefully about reuse and adaptation when we create new resources. Anna described the growth in open translation communities, often centered around educational content providers like TED (Open translation project), Khan Academy and Coursera (Global translator community). Course material, mostly lectures, are translated into hundreds of languages by networks of enthusiasts making the material accessible to local communities who would otherwise never benefit from such services. Translation of Wikipedia material into hundreds of languages has been going on for several years and the existence of an online encyclopedia in a less used language can become a source of pride for the community and a catalyst for further activities to strengthen the language and culture. School classes, student groups, academics and other experts can all help to create educational resources in smaller languages that would never be viable projects for commercial publishers.

But simply translating English language resources is only the tip of an iceberg of opportunities for smaller languages and cultures. Open education gets really relevant when resources are designed with reuse and adaption in mind, allowing other users to modify the material to be more relevant to local culture and practice. The majority of open resources today are not easily adapted and were developed for one particular context without considering who else might use it in the future. I would like to see a set of simple guidelines for OER sustainability that all educators could easily check when creating new resources. How to ensure that your material can easily be translated, edited, supplemented to fit other contexts. Maybe such a checklist already exists but it needs to be more widely distributed and used.

This applies not only to resources in English but equally to resources created in other languages. Resources created in a country's dominant language should be created with reusability in mind so that minority languages in the same country can benefit. If common guidelines are followed it will be easy for minority language teachers to adapt each resource to their language and culture and at the same time following for example the national curriculum. Resources created in one smaller language can then easily be spread to related languages, thus saving many people from reinventing the wheel.

I look forward to following this discussion in the future.

Have a listen to this short interview I made with the project leader of LangOER, Katerina Zourou, for a general background to the project.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

New isn't always best

I've written many times about the unnecessary polarization of the debate between traditional and digital educational practices. It's all too easy to create conflicts when there shouldn't be any. It's true that we need to move away from all over-reliance on lectures and instructivist pedagogy but we shouldn't simply abandon methods that can continue to play a role in education. There are times when a well-planned lecture is exactly the right method to deliver a message and simple multiple choice tests can serve a useful purpose.

I was interested to read a post by Ryan Tracey, Let’s get rid of the instructors! where he presents a defence for the more traditional xMOOCs of Coursera and edX, often criticised for their lack of collaboration and learner empowerment. He lists several cases where an instructivist approach with recorded lectures, prescribed reading, self-tests etc is probably the most appropriate. When you are new to a subject and want a basic introduction then it's good to have it presented in a structured and logical manner. Inquiry and collaboration require a higher level of knowledge and are time-consuming so if time is short the traditional approach will be best. If you need to learn something to do your job you have no time to spend on exploring and working it out for yourself; you want the information presented clearly and then put it into practice. Of course, once you've grasped the basics you can explore and collaborate to learn more but the initial phase may be less interactive. A lot of learning is about repetition and memorization, requires stamina and enormous patience and is generally a solitary effort. Repetitive traditional drills are often the only way to learn.

So these xMOOCs do fulfill an important role and we often wrongly assume that all learners have the same preferences as we. Not everyone wants to investigate freely or work in peer groups. Some simply want to get on with it in their way and resent being forced into group work that can be counter-productive if the group does not pull together. As Ryan rightly points out the fact that an xMOOC is instructivist doesn't prevent enthusiastic learners from investigating some aspect further under their own steam or with a small group from the course.

While the learner is free to work their way through the curriculum along the pre-defined weekly path, they are also free to inquire, explore and discover at their discretion within a thoughtfully structured environment.

The point is that we need to choose the appropriate methods for each situation and use the best tools for the job. Not all courses need to be open, constructivist and flexible. Sometimes the old approach is better. In our enthusiasm for the new we should not simply discard the old as irrelevant. Making the right choices is the challenge for today's educators. Let's build on past practices, not just break with them.

As history reminds us time and time again, no one view is ever the “right” one – at least, not all the time. Our perspective is so dependent on the circumstances that we learning pro’s must appreciate the problem before trumpeting or poopooing the solution.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Should we ask students to switch off their devices?

I got a bit of a shock when I read a new article by Clay Shirky, one of the most high profile advocates of the digital revolution, about his decision to ask students to switch off their devices in class, Why I just asked my students to put their laptops away. Up till now such an idea has been dismissed as a sign of the teacher's hostility to technology and that it is the teacher's responsibility to make the class time as engaging as possible to keep students involved and to counter multitasking. However the issue of multitasking and distractions is more insidious and even one of the leading authorities in social media has to take a step back.

The problem is that today's social media and devices are simply too compulsive. Even with the best will in the world to concentrate on one thing at a time we can't stop ourselves from quickly checking what's going on out there, especially with the presence of all forms of alerts to lure us in. Another factor is the myth that multitasking shows that we are effective workers and that sitting in a meeting or class simply listening is an admittance that we have nothing else we need to do.

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

Every time your attention strays to check an update or answer an e-mail you lose something else. You may think you're still listening to what is going on in the room but even if you follow the gist you are unable to reflect or grasp the nuances. While it is true that we have always had distractions in classrooms when things get boring such as writing messages on bits of paper, today's distractions come with graphics, sound and video and are always going to trump whatever goes on in the room.

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.

So what's the solution? Here in Sweden our education minister has proposed to ban mobiles in the classroom to counter multitasking but that seems to be missing the point completely. We all need to learn how and when to use technology and when to switch it off. In classrooms and meeting rooms there are times when the teacher or leader of the meeting is perfectly entitled to ask everyone to switch off because this task requires full concentration. It's like having the door or windows open - it's nice to hear and see what's going on outside but when you need to concentrate it's sometimes best to close the door, shut the window and maybe even pull down the blinds in order to concentrate.

Attention is a vital skill to learn. If we can't focus very little gets done. But that doesn't mean banning devices; it means learning to use them wisely and becoming aware of the irresistible lure of the sirens' cry.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Take note

David Truss (@datruss) started something when he tweeted this photo showing an extreme version of a common phenomenon in classrooms and lecture halls everywhere. The ensuing Twitter discussion then lead to a blog post by David, 4 notes on taking notes.

The problem with this photo is that the students aren't taking notes at all, they're simply copying. They do this because the information shown on the board is only available at that moment and represents a pedagogy of scarcity and exclusivity. If the material was published on the net they wouldn't be jostling to get the best photo, they might instead be discussing the issues raised by the material. Of course it's handy to quickly take a photo of a diagram or slide that you see in class but it isn't worth anything until you actually process the information yourself. The questions that immediately arise for me are:
  • Why didn't the teacher make the slides available to the students in advance and used class time to discuss the material?
  • Why not devote more time to explaining how to take meaningful notes and the importance of processing and reworking information rather than simply copying verbatim.
  • Students are still stuck in the traditional view of learning as the memorisation of facts. 
In David Truss' blog post he comments that taking a photo is a lousy way to take notes since it is not searchable and you haven't processed the information presented. It's the same as copying a friend's notes on a lecture you missed. You get the bare facts but miss the internal processing of deciding what to note and how to express it that is so essential to learning. The learning is not in the notes it's in the process. Instead of copying these students should learn to use mind-maps and other note-taking methods to process and rework what they hear in class or in other learning spaces.

Take notes or create notes? There are times when copying notes might be a useful thing to do, but for the most part, that is a rather passive way to learn information (unless you use specific strategies to help you take those notes). Students creating the notes, or doing a task whereby the notes are used to help construct a learning experience, is far better than copying words onto a piece of paper, or into a digital document, or for that matter, taking a photo of the information.

This leads into another ongoing discussion about note-taking; whether it is better to take notes digitally or by hand. I have always believed that it's not the device or the medium that matters, it's how you work with them but an article in Scientific American, A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop, claims that handwritten notes are actually more effective. The reason is that we can usually type fast enough to simply write what is said whereas handwriting forces you to summarise and select the information you note and therefore allows you to internalise the information to a greater extent.

Technology offers innovative tools that are shaping educational experiences for students, often in positive and dynamic ways. The research by Mueller and Oppenheimer serves as a reminder, however, that even when technology allows us to do more in less time, it does not always foster learning. Learning involves more than the receipt and the regurgitation of information. If we want students to synthesize material, draw inferences, see new connections, evaluate evidence, and apply concepts in novel situations, we need to encourage the deep, effortful cognitive processes that underlie these abilities. When it comes to taking notes, students need fewer gigs, more brain power.

The moral of all this is not to abandon technology and return to the good old days as some might hope. It is once again a lesson that we need to learn to use the right methods and devices in the right situation and for the right reasons. Taking photos of someone else's notes or copying verbatim may give an illusion of learning but are an example of using powerful technology in the wrong way. We need to learn to use our devices wisely and be more aware of their possibilities and limitations. Instead of seeing a divide between old and new we should see a wide range of tools and methods all of which can help us learn as long as we choose wisely.

Note: I always try to credit the photos I use but in this case I don't know who took the original. If I have infringed on any copyright here I will of course remove the photo and link to it instead.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Who loves conference calls?

Even after many years of synchronous video meetings using free tools like Skype and Google Hangouts as well as more sophisticated e-meeting systems like Adobe Connect, Blackboard Collaborate and Webbex I'm constantly amazed that so many people still use the telephone conference call. The conference call lacks all the features available in even the free e-meeting tools on the net; you can't see who's in the meeting, you don't know who's speaking and you can't share any information. Often it's hard to tell who is speaking and when many participants are calling from their mobiles the speech quality can fluctuate greatly.

A recent article in the Atlantic, Study: Nobody Is Paying Attention on Your Conference Call, looks at conference call behaviour and reveals that the majority of participants are busy doing other things during a conference call. When no-one sees you you're free to carry on doing a host of other things and participants fade in and out of the meeting, only reacting when the subject directly affects them. Leading a conference call can be a very lonely job and sometimes it's hard to know if there's anyone out there at all. I'll admit that a well-chaired meeting with a clear agenda and committed participants can work but the conference call has few positive features to make it worth the effort.

The missing elements are presence and empathy; the feeling that you are part of a group with a common objective and the ability to see colleagues' reactions to what you say. E-meeting tools can go a long way to providing these. A participant list can at least indicate who is logged in, a chat function allows questions to be asked or useful links distributed and of course video makes everyone visible. Of course people tend to multitask and daydream even with these features but that has always been the case even in face-to-face meetings. However, the features of e-meeting tools can help to promote a higher level of participation and thereby combat the passivity of voice-only meetings.

Effective meetings, just like good courses, require focus, participation, presence and empathy. Without these elements participants' concentration wanders and they eventually switch off. Wherever we meet and interact we need stimulating and creative environments where all participants feel welcome and where the aims of the meeting are clear and meaningful to all. This applies equally to face-to-face as well as online meetings. People who feel involved in a discussion don't daydream or multitask. We all need to improve our ability to exploit the available tools and methods (digital and analogue) that facilitate greater participation.