Friday, October 31, 2014

Beyond edtech skepticism

Online learning has still not come of age in terms of faculty acceptance and the concerns of 10 years ago live on; completion rates, absence of human contact, academic depth etc. Old truths or half-truths die hard in the academic world and this is brought home by an article in Inside Higher Ed Online Ed Skepticism and Self-Sufficiency: Survey of Faculty Views on Technology, which summarises the views of around 3,000 university teachers and educational technologists around the USA. Despite the advances in online learning and the MOOC explosion of recent years, the majority of faculty still believe that online courses are inferior to classroom teaching. Not surprisingly the most negative attitudes to online education came from teachers with little or no experience of the field. The more experienced they were the more positive attitudes prevailed, but even among the experienced teachers there was a deep concern about the lack of meaningful interaction.

Virtually all faculty members and technology administrators say meaningful student-teacher interaction is a hallmark of a quality online education, and that it is missing from most online courses.

Here is a curious paradox in the use of technology in education. There are hundreds of tools and services available that directly facilitate increased interaction and collaboration, both synchronously and asynchronously, yet most online courses fail to exploit these and continue to be largely text-based, content delivery with little space for interaction. Even if there is a wealth of research and practice showing that they keys to student retention are creating a sense of community, fostering multimodal collaboration and interaction and providing timely support, many choose to continue with basic e-learning 1.0. Indeed over 90% of the respondents say high-quality online courses provide meaningful interaction between instructors and students, so why do so few measure up to that? The bad reputation of the past is still used as an excuse not to get involved or not to fully explore the potential of today's online education. In the article Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, says:

..  My general reaction is that the data show that the more exposure a faculty member has had to online or blended learning, the more positive their view ... But, clearly, not all faculty have seen the potential of online learning to match and even exceed the effectiveness of face-to-face learning, because they have not had the opportunity to become familiar with best practices and research-driven course design and delivery.

We also need to look more carefully at what actually goes on in the classroom and whether the interaction there is as good as we imagine. How many students actively contribute to a class discussion and how many say nothing? How interactive and challenging are our classes and lectures and could some discussions be more interactive online, especially if we make use of video and audio to supplement text communication? So many online environments are completely text-based and this one-dimensionality puts many students at a disadvantage. More opportunities for using video and audio in discussion rooms gives everyone a voice and makes the communication more personal.

I sometimes feel that many conveniently dismiss online education as second-rate due to outdated information and without really investigating current research and best practice. Once again I must stress the need to stop making unnecessary comparisons and really look at how technology can be used to enhance all learning, wherever it takes place.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

New roads to certification

kumiyama00 by Ken OHYAMA, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Ken OHYAMA

When I was trying to decide what to study at university back in the mid-seventies I was told that it didn't matter so much what I studied, the possession of a good degree was enough. Once in a job the organisation would provide me with the training needed for that sector. So I studied English language and literature simply because it was interesting and didn't really think about employment until my final year when I realised that my employment prospects were somewhat limited. That sounds extremely irresponsible and naive today when higher education makes you ready for specific employment and companies expect you to be productive from day one. If degrees are the hard currency of credentials then universities still have the sole right to print that currency, accredited by national bodies and subject to rigorous controls that guarantee the credibility of that currency.

However in recent years that exclusive role has come into question as employers become increasingly critical that universities are not teaching the skills needed in the modern workplace. The degree certificate states what subjects the graduate has studied and how long it took but says little or nothing about what skills the student has mastered and concrete evidence of those skills. What really is the difference between the grades in a qualification, how much more skilled is an A student compared to a B student? An article in Harvard Business Review, The Real Revolution in Online Education Isn’t MOOCs points to competency-based learning as the game-changer in higher education rather than the over-hyped MOOCs. Competency-based learning is about credentials for proven skills, often by at least partly recognising practical work experience and validating prior learning. Traditional degrees focus on years of study whereas competency-based learning sees time as a variable.

Competency-based learning flips this on its head and centers on mastery of a subject regardless of the time it takes to get there. A student cannot move on until demonstrating fluency in each competency. As a result, an employer can rest assured that when a student can use mathematical formulas to make financial decisions; the student has mastered that competency. Learning is fixed, and time is variable.

Using this method you can be awarded credentials without attending courses if you can prove that you fulfill the requirements. This demands that the awarding institutions have sound validation processes and can verify that the candidate has the competence required but the advantages are clear. Companies can employ people knowing that they have the right skills and learners can get recognition for what they know without always having to take lengthy courses. If you have the skills and knowledge a one year course could be completed in half the time or less. Greater global mobility and migration means that fully-qualified and skilled professionals are forced to repeat all or a great deal of their education in their adopted country simply due to lack of recognition. This can often be so demotivating that the person simply gives up all hope of ever working in their field and resigns herself to lower paid and less skilled work; a lose-lose situation for the country and the individual.

One variation on this theme is MOOC pioneer Udacity's venture into customised nanodegrees; six to nine month project-based courses designed in collaboration with major companies with the aim of developing key skills for employability.

Nanodegrees are designed to help you become job-ready. Similar to our course experience, you'll work on projects. Unlike our individual courses, you'll need to submit your projects by a given deadline for validation. Each course and project builds on each other so, at the end, you'll have a portfolio of projects to demonstrate to potential employers that you're job-ready.

But is this really a university education? No it isn't but there is clearly a need for a more varied ecosystem of qualifications otherwise major companies would not be so interested in competency-based learning. Many colleges are already working in this field and many will offer both traditional 3-4 year degrees as well as competency-based certifications. I still think there is a place for the more rounded education and life experience of a traditional university education but it is no longer the only path to employment. Education is undoubtedly the key to economic development but we are beginning to realise that this does not mean simply sending everyone to university. University's do some things very well but we need credible alternatives too.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Not so lost in translation

translate icon by misterbisson, on Flickr
CC BY-SA Some rights reserved by misterbisson
The universal translator is on every science fiction fan's wish list but it looks as if we're getting close to a breakthrough, at least between the major languages of the world. An article and film report from CNN, Taking a cue from science fiction, Microsoft demos 'universal translator', shows how Microsoft's voice translator technology is being implemented by Skype and the word is that some kind of pilot service will be launched in the near future. Of course they're not alone in their search for the next potential golden goose of technology; Google are also working hard developing their already successful Google Translate into voice recognition.

According to Gurdeep Pall, Corporate VP of Skype:

The idea that people don't understand each other, it's going to be a thing of the past,... In the same way it's hard to imagine a world before you were able to travel to different places and quickly, whether it be in a car or a plane, we'll never think about, wow, those were the dark ages where people couldn't understand each other. That's where we're headed.

The film below features a demonstration of Skype translating very well between English and German and if it can deliver that level of accuracy the market will be enormous. The text translations provided by Microsoft and Google can now provide readable versions as long as you stick to the major European languages. As soon as you stray outside the mainstream of English, French, Spanish, German and possibly Italian the translations can sometimes still lapse into incomprehensibility. I doubt if the voice translation will be as good as text but for a few languages it could well be good enough. I suspect that this will be a premium rate service once it is fully launched.

I still think we're a long way from replacing a professional simultaneous interpreter who will still be needed when the stakes are high and misunderstandings are to be avoided at all costs. However in many meetings and discussions an interpreter is far too costly or completely impractical so technology could be the next best thing. Of course many people are gifted in languages but when one of the parties in the discussion is forced to use a language they are not proficient in it can result in just as many, if not more, misunderstandings as voice translator technology.

Anyway, so far so good. Judge for yourself by watching the CNN report here with Richard Quest:

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Webinar as arena for learning

Conference venue, Umeå university
Webinars can be interactive arenas for learning and sharing ideas but running a successful webinar is more demanding than many expect. What are the key factors behind a successful webinar where everyone feels part of an active community?

Online discussion
As the first activity of our new project (Webinar - for interactive and collaborative learning) we ran a combined face-to-face and online workshop at the Swedish conference for teaching in higher education, NU2014, in this year's European Capital of Culture, Umeå. The aim of the project is to test methods for making webinars more participatory in cooperation with several partner organisations from a variety of fields: education, public administration, industry and associations. There are six of us in the project from five different countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Austria) and we have all extensive experience running webinars, though we realise we still have so much to learn.

Some of the on-site groups
In this workshop we had about 25 participants in the room in Umeå, another on-site group in Salzburg, Austria, plus online participants recruited through our Facebook group. A basic question that was raised was how to define a webinar. I had rather loosely mentioned at the beginning that we saw a webinar as involving more than say 30 participants but this was rightly challenged on the grounds that it is basically a web seminar and therefore can even be used for relatively small groups. I think it is impossible to give an exact cut-off figure for when an e-meeting becomes a webinar but maybe when you have so many participants that it is difficult if not unfeasible for all to have video and audio capabilities it becomes easy to lapse into broadcast mode.

The group work focused on identifying key factors for a successful interactive webinar and everyone had access to a common virtual workspace using the extremely handy tool Padlet. This enables participants to write notes as well as upload links and photos to a space that all can see and which can be further developed after the webinar is over (see our results). Here is a summary of some of the main points that emerged from the discussions.
  • Awareness of participants' skills in the online environment
  • Plan your marketing and use registration to get information on the audience (where they work, type of work). Registration list can also be used for follow-up, eg sending the link to the recording to all registered participants.
  • Technical issues - pre-webinar information on settings, technical requirements etc 
  • Implement a "thermometer" where participants can grade the audio-quality of whoever is speaking at a certain time in the webinar. 
  • Introduction on how to participate, co-created rules for interaction 
  • Make it clear when the session is going to be recorded and when the recording is over. 
  • Allow time for socialising and getting familiar with the environment before the webinar starts. Welcoming atmosphere and stimulating layout. 
  • Webinar etiquette and meeting culture - tips about using microphones, chat, asking questions etc. 
  • Be aware of cultural differences when an international group is assembled. Many people are not used to active participation. 
  • Moderator has a key role. Must be familiar with the tools and be able to multitask (checing chat, seeing who has raised their hand etc) 
  • Using different types of poll questions to check audience experience, opinions and to get feedback.
  • How to focus attention. The "choreography" of the session is important - using different layouts for different purposes, eg make chat window small when we need to focus on a speaker, then large chat window when we ask for comments and questions.
  • Creating breakout groups and having a common work space to gather all notes and conclusions. Alternate who speaks and have assignments that include listening and observation. 
  • Interactivity after every slide. 
  • Language can be a barrier to interactivity. Group work allows for own language use though conclusions must be written in common language.
This was a relatively complex webinar since we had face-to-face groups on two sites plus online participants using breakout groups. In addition we used Padlet to gather notes from the group discussions and this worked well though not all groups made extensive notes. We tried to extend the event by using a short promotion video that was spread via Twitter and Facebook and the Padlet page offers participants the opportunity to add ideas even after the session is over. The page is still open for comments if you feel inspired. I had a project colleague to moderate the online discussions whilst I and a colleague concentrated on the classroom. From the above conclusions I would like to find a kind of sound quality thermometer so people can indicate how well they can hear the speaker without interrupting. I also realise that we can do much more to provide clear pre-webinar information and providing clearer instructions on how to participate. There is also plenty scope for developing the moderator role and providing the right information at the right time. The next step in the project is seeing what methods and tools to use with our partners in the pilot cases. I will no doubt return to this topic again many times in the future.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Can open badges become educational hard currency?

IMG_4338 (Tom Lee Yamaha Music Course Ce by Dennis Wong, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Dennis Wong

Can open badges become accepted as credible credentials in education or will they remain as an optional extra with very little impact on the labour market? The concept of open badges is to provide a digital certificate for skills and achievements with links to skills required, awarding body, assessment criteria and date of award. You can be awarded badges by your employer, college, association, training provider or even peer groups and they can give proof of proficiency in soft skills and competences that regular certificates seldom acknowledge. The idea is that badges as well as formal qualifications can all be included in your e-portfolio giving future employers a more detailed and fair overview of your skills and ability from a wide range of perspectives rather than the limited skills assessed in traditional qualifications. Badges can therefore complement rather than replace traditional credentials.

Open badges have made considerable progress in the USA where they have the backing of major organisations like the MacArthur Foundation and several elite universities like Carnegie Mellon and Purdue have already started testing the concept. However mainstream uptake is slow and an article by Bernard Bull, 10 reasons why people are not using open badges, presents some good reasons for this. Being new there is an understandable suspicion that they may be easily faked or copied. Teachers are naturally wary of a concept that is still not completely user-friendly and badge design still demands technical skills. The badges movement is still in the pioneer phase and although there are communities and help sites it needs to be more standardised and streamlined before most teachers will start showing interest.

For those who have heard about digital badges, most still have limited understanding of their affordances and limitations. There are not many resources that explain different usage scenarios in a quick and easy to understand format. We have the cases from the Digital Media and Learning Competition a few years ago, but beyond that, there are not many places to go and look through examples of how badges are being used.

Bernard also points to the valid objection that badges are seen by many as the digital equivalent of the gold stars pasted into our old school exercise books, simple rewards for making an effort but academically empty (see his post Beware of badges as biscuits). There is a risk of organisations awarding badges in a trivial manner but the transparency of badges means that all award criteria and information about the badge must be available in the metadata and therefore any badges awarded for simply trying hard or being there will be revealed by the lack of solid evidence behind the award. Traditional certificates actually show very little detailed information about learning outcomes, skills and requirements unless you contact the awarding institution whereas badges can reveal full details at a click.

Digital badges are a new currency for credentialing in a world of connected learning. They are more than glorified digital biscuits for good behavior. While they may have motivational elements to them, their greatest potential is in revolutionizing how we think about credentials in the digital age.

But maybe the main problem at present is the term badge which for many people trivialises the concept by association with scout badges and gaming. This is not surprising since that's where much of the inspiration behind open badges has come from but maybe it's time to change in order to gain more credibility. A recent post by Valar Afshar in the Huffington Post, A Solution To The Massively Disengaged Workforce, offers one solution:

One way to position badges away from games and marketing is to give the concept a different name. At UC Davis, for example, the achievements are called "skill qualifications" (SQs) to give them more career relevance and to set them apart from game-oriented achievements.

This article also cites a recent survey of employers' attitudes to badges and the main reasons for the slow uptake are given as: better industry and market recognition and acceptance of specific badges (67%), standardized requirements of criteria for similar achievements (55%), and lower cost systems to implement badges (37%).

The open badges movement is in that difficult transition period from pioneer phase to mainstream acceptance and is caught in the situation where uptake is slow because it's still relatively unknown and lacks mainstream credibility but it can't prove itself unless some major organisations implement and evaluate it seriously. Maybe that name change could be the catalyst.