Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Webinars and wifi - not a happy couple

Conference Audience, Anno 2010 by Adriaan Bloem, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Adriaan Bloem on Flickr

A very common complaint about webinars and other synchronous online meetings is poor audio and video quality. This is generally caused by a number of factors, for example not checking your computer's audio and video settings and putting too much trust in wireless connections (wifi). I am involved an a lot of webinars, as organiser, host, speaker and participant, and this is a recurrent issue that causes lots of badwill towards online meetings. The wifi issue is particularly tricky since wifi access is now so popular and it's hard to convince people that it presents serious issues for synchronous high bandwidth communication.

There's an excellent post on this topic on Ken Molay's webinar blog, WiFi Wreaks Webinar Woes. He explains why wifi is not ideal for webinars, especially for those who need to be seen and heard in the session. Wifi is fine for participants but far too inconsistent for hosting.

The problem with WiFi for streaming content is that it is inconsistent. Even running the standard pre-webinar quality tests is no guarantee of performance thirty minutes (or thirty seconds) later. A little bit of interference from other signals on the same channel, a small shift in your device's antenna orientation, or instantaneous local load as your neighbor starts to stream a movie or download a giant email attachment can interrupt the flow of data to your system.

I've had quite a few webinar flops at conference venues who assured me that they had an excellent wifi connection and there was no need for wired internet connections. However once you assemble a couple of hundred eager e-learning experts, each with at least two devices, in a conference venue the available bandwidth for a single user often gets strangled. A webinar tool like Adobe Connect that streams video, audio, presentation slides, chat, participant lists, polls and more, chews up an awful lot of bandwidth and is very sensitive to delays. The success of the webinar depends on everyone seeing and hearing the same thing at the same time and being able to answer polls and chat questions. If some are experiencing delays everything gets out of sync. The result is a session with long delays making interaction impossible and often wild variations in sound and video quality. Sometimes it simply gives up and crashes. I always insist on a wired connection when hosting webinars from conference venues but even then there can be trouble just around the corner. At one venue I had a wired connection that worked very poorly and after enquiries I found out that the wire simply went to a wireless router and a wifi connection! At another conference the audience was asked to stop using their devices for a while because the keynote speaker couldn't show a film due to lack of bandwidth. In such cases there should be a separate internet connection for speakers so they don't get mixed up with the conference buzz.

I am not an expert on the technical side so I'm sure there are factors in this that I haven't realised but I think one of the problems here is that we have become so accustomed to everything working all the time that we take bandwidth for granted. As soon as we get more bandwidth we use even more of it and quickly reach congestion level again. E-meeting tools are constantly trying to find new ways of compressing sound and video but unless they can use a dedicated link with guaranteed bandwidth the troubles will probably continue. Ken Molay's article offers no real solution to this problem at present. However it would be good to increase awareness of the limitations of bandwidth and why the problems that are often linked to webinars are often not the fault of the tools or the organisers. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

MOOCs for development

Keeping Goats and also Texting by Ikhlasul Amal, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by Ikhlasul Amal on Flickr

The original idea of a MOOC back in 2008 was that anyone can start a course and create a learning community around a subject of common interest. Open tools and platforms should be used so that there are no technical barriers to participation. Basically if you and some colleagues would like to investigate a particular subject or test some ideas you can invite the world to join in. There are still plenty of truly open grassroots MOOCs, more or less massive, but the vast majority today are highly polished professional productions from major universities and often extremely expensive to produce. As a result many smaller institutions, especially in developing countries, are discouraged from even considering open education. If the role model is a slick multimedia course from a high status university with over 100,000 participants it's easy to fell overwhelmed.

But a MOOC doesn't have to be so massive and the production costs can be kept low without compromising pedagogical quality. The promise of MOOCs was to widen participation and access to higher education especially for those who cannot afford a regular campus course. The problem with the high profile MOOCs is that all the video content, animations and other bandwidth heavy content puts them out of the reach of millions in developing countries.

Commonwealth of Learning (CoL) has now launched a free and open MOOC platform to enable smaller organisations in developing countries to run MOOCs without needing to invest so much money. The concept is called MOOC4D (MOOCs for development) and is built on the platform mooKIT offering a low bandwidth solution that is free to use for courses of up to 10,000 participants. The concept is that running a MOOC should be as easy as taking one. The platform offers participants the chance to download text and audio content for offline use and none of the content should use much bandwidth. At present there is only a limited range of courses available (Mobiles for development, ICT Basics, Climate change in the Pacific, Teacher training in the Seychelles and a MOOC on MOOCs) but the potential for this kind of platform is immense. The first course, appropriately a MOOC on MOOCs, has now been evaluated and a report is now available with analysis and conclusions, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on MOOCs: Course Evaluation. Here's an introduction video to the mooKIT platform.

Another fine example of low-tech online learning is a MOOC on horticulture taught in Hindi and run by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur with support from CoL. This MOOC uses only mobile phones for distribution with regular short audio lessons being stored on voice mail and always accessible. Tests in the form of quizzes are also carried out by phone. The prototype course with over 1000 participants has been evaluated and a report has been published about the results with recommendations for future development, MobiMOOC - a massive open online course on horticulture - an effectiveness study, Uttar Pradesh State, INDIA.

The exciting thing with this type of initiative is providing a simple, open platform that enables institutions in developing countries to offer open courses that are adapted to the technical limitations of the areas they serve. It can also mean that more MOOCs are produced in smaller languages and thus offer a tool to empower local language and culture. Surely the real benefit of the MOOC movement is enabling everyone to participate in online learning.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Goodbye MOOC, hello microcredentials

Blended learning (Biology) by queensu, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by queensu

MOOC spin-offs are coming thick and fast as the term starts to dissolve into lots of new concepts. The free plain vanilla MOOCs are still flourishing but they've now developed a layered structure where you opt to pay for tutoring, assessment and even credits. Coursera's signature track option now offers verified credentials for a fee and this has spawned equivalent solutions in most MOOC consortia. These are not university credits but they are verified by the awarding university.

Slowly the term MOOC is fading and being replaced by terms like microcredentials and nanodegrees with students being able to study a series of short online courses that lead to verified certificates or badges whose real value on the job market is yet to be established. They aren't degrees or credits but they may be the next best thing and many hope they may create a new niche. Short online course modules offered by MOOC consortia are being packaged into a new qualifications shorter and more accessible then the traditional degree. Coursera offers what they call Specializations, EdX offers XSeriesUdacity offers nanodegrees and there are a number of other solutions such as Udemy for business. Many of these non-credit programmes are developed in close cooperation with major corporations (in particular Udacity's range) and are marketed as teaching students exactly the skills they need for employment. Most seem to be aimed at graduates as part of their professional development rather than trying to offer an alternative to traditional degrees but who knows how this will play out. If employers accept these new credentials then who knows.

Many institutions are now prepared to let others build their MOOCs instead of devoting so much internal resources to course design and creation. The Dutch company MOOC Factory offers universities and corporate customers expertise and an attractive platform to build online courses and course modules that use methods and tools from the MOOC movement but that now may not be so open or massive. The lessons learned from the first years of MOOCs are now being refined and developed in less massive closed online environments.

An article in Inside Higher Ed, Establishment Goes Alternative describes a new initiative from a group of seven US universities to offer skills-based microcredentials by offering a range of online modules, skills assessment and tutoring under the banner of University Learning Store. The venture is not yet in operation but the article describes the plans to create an alternative credential solution that offers sub-degree qualifications.

The idea is to create an “alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees,” said David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at Wisconsin Extension.

What's interesting with University Learning Store is that it is driven by the universities and colleges themselves, thus creating a new tier of higher education that may other compete with or complement the traditional degree system. The other players, although involving the higher education sector, are generally driven by commercial interests and venture capital. I suspect that the main target group for microcredentials are those who already have a university education and are looking for career development courses that are not as long and demanding as regular post-graduate qualifications like a masters degree. This also links in with the growth in competence-based degrees where professionals can progress more quickly to degrees by getting credits for proven skills at work and where assessment is based on real work projects.

These new types of credentials will I believe only enrich the education sector and provide people with alternative paths to learning new skills. Maybe it's time for universities to offer alternatives to traditional degrees such as microcredentials before that niche is taken by the corporate sector.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Flipping meetings

StaffMeeting by ransomtech, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by ransomtech on Flickr

The concept of flipping the classroom is rapidly spreading to other contexts. The underlying principle is to make sure that when we ask a group of people to come to a face-to-face meeting, the time should be spent on interaction and constructive activities rather than passive information transfer. The information can easily be sent to participants in advance as a video or audio file or in document form and this can apply equally well in all types of meetings. Valuable meeting time can then be spent on discussion and group work where the participants have had time to consider their opinions and can offer more informed comments than the spontaneous reactions heard at meetings where the information is delivered traditionally. Schools, conferences and meetings all suffer from the outdated belief that the only way to inform people is by gathering them all in a room and lecturing them.

In schools this concept is already well-established but now the focus is moving to reinventing the dreaded staff meeting. An article on TeachThought, 5 Challenges We Overcame Moving To A Flipped Staff Meeting, offers advice to managers who realise that their staff meetings have become stale rituals.

What if teachers could go to staff meetings and be actively collaborating? What if teachers looked forward to going to staff meetings? What if teachers could leave a staff meeting having been fully engaged for its entire duration? What if staff meetings were the place to learn, innovate, and transform teaching practices?

Some people may of course appreciate being passive for a while and getting the information they need in one convenient meeting. However what I notice today is that the information provided at meetings is more relevant to some than to others and as a result many people check their e-mails, prepare coming activities or simply get nervous as they realise they have many better things they could do with their time. I'm sure all meetings would benefit from a flipped approach and that active participation and involvement would also eliminate most multi-tasking. If people are actively involved then they won't have time to even think of multitasking.

However the article warns that attitudes are hard to change and that shifting to more active and meaningful meetings means abandoning past practices. There will be objections at first; the traditional meeting is comfortable and passive. You're asking people to do extra work and to come to meetings we--prepared rather than just showing up at the last minute. But if the extra work results in more informed and committed staff (or students) who see staff meetings as an opportunity for learning and development then the effort is well worthwhile.

Changing the way you do staff meetings is going to be a mindset shift for everyone. Attending a traditional staff meeting, although boring, tends to be pretty easy. You just have to sit there. And now teachers will not only have to be active during the staff meeting, but also watch a screencast prior to the meeting. My advice is to trust the process. Once everyone realizes the benefits of flipping staff meetings, people’s mindset will begin to change.