Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The distraction society

We live in a world where distraction is default and uninterrupted concentration a luxury that few are able to find. I'm writing this in a cafe with rather irritating and hard to ignore music in the background (it's almost impossible to find a silent cafe) as well as screens showing brightly coloured adverts and the usual billboards and logos on everything. Add to this the siren's call of my mobile buzzing to alert me to a new e-mail, text or update and it's clear that you need enormous willpower to shut out the distractions and really concentrate. We've become so used to distractions that we don't even realise their effect.

A post in Inside Higher Ed, Digital Distractions, describes the findings of a new article on digital distractions in class and student attitudes to them, Digital Distractions in the Classroom Phase II: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes (Journal of Media Education). Most students admit there are disadvantages to multitasking in class, even resulting in lower grades, but simply can't stop themselves, citing the main reasons as wanting to keep updated and fighting boredom. However the vast majority believe that they can handle the distractions and are completely against banning devices from the classroom. The comments to the article show divided opinions among teachers from those who advocate banning mobiles completely in class to more pragmatic attitudes of allowing but trying to promote more enlightened use. I think the answer lies in the whole class agreeing on a common class culture of how to deal with distractions even if this can take time to establish. The difficulty is that society is built on distractions, digital or otherwise, and its a mindset that is hard to break.

Digital media and devices have indeed increased the distraction level significantly but there are many more forms of distraction built into today's society so the digital element is not the villain of the peace but simply a symptom of a wider trend. Digital tends to magnify existing trends in society but is not the root cause. Ubiquitous music, news updates, advertising and the ludicrously overwhelming range of shops, products and services that clamour for our attention mean that distraction is now default, especially for those born in the last thirty years or so. We simply accept distraction as perfectly normal and the problem for education is helping students to find ways of escaping and consciously creating their own bubbles of concentration. In all levels of education as well as in workplaces we need to discuss issues like distraction, attention, focus and work on consciously creating such concentration bubbles for ourselves where we allow ourselves time to think and concentrate. This is a real 21st century skill and takes time and courage to develop.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Credit for peer review

365: day 141 by Nick in exsilio, on Flickr
"365: day 141" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Nick in exsilio
As researchers gain more visibility by publishing articles in open access journals and expand their networks through social media and research communities it's time the reviewers also received more public recognition. Peer review is the foundation of all scientific research but those who do the work get little reward for their efforts apart from a thank-you e-mail from the publisher. Being asked to review for a scientific journal is a considerable merit but it has so far been difficult to show publically. Reviewing is a demanding and time-consuming unpaid task often squeezed into reviewer's evenings and weekends. Can peer review be made more open and can reviewers get visible credit?

One solution to this that has been in operation for a few years now is called Publons. This is a community of over 50,000 reviewers who can register their verifiable peer review assignments and make their experience visible in their profiles (so far 281,239 reviews in 16,192 journals). Publons' aim is to allow members to:

Record, verify, and showcase your peer review contributions in a format you can include in job and funding applications (without breaking reviewer anonymity).

Most reviews are of course anonymous and cannot be published publically except when all parties agree and such cases can be read on Publons. Otherwise the service is based on the recognition e-mails from the publisher which are also verified in cooperation between Publons and the major publishers. Registered reviews can also have their profiles automatically updated if the review for a publication that is a Publons partner. The result is that reviewers have a verified profile that can be used in funding applications or when applying for a new position. You decide how your information is presented and the level of detail.

Services like this are giving long-awaited recognition to the vast amount of previously invisible work that lies behind every published article and even if there are still no financial rewards at least reviewers have reliable evidence of their expertise. 

Read more about Publons in an article from Nature, The scientists who get credit for peer review.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

MOOCs and crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is a method of sharing work between a theoretically unlimited amount of people and allows enthusiasts from all over the world to collaborate on a project. The most famous example is Wikipedia where millions of people have contributed to varying degrees to produce the largest reference work ever and now available in hundreds of languages. Projects like this would be impossible using conventional methods but have succeeded through contributors' dedication and willingness to contribute to a common purpose, without a thought of financial gain. If open crowdsourcing (there are more commercial variations too) can achieve so much could there be implications for massive online learning? Many crowdsourcing projects involve massive collaboration over a limited space of time to achieve a clear objective and the similarities between this and a MOOC are striking.

This is the subject of an intriguing new article by John Prpić, James Melton, Araz Taeihagh and Terry AndersonMOOCs and crowdsourcing: Massive courses and massive resources (First Monday, Volume 20, Number 12). The original connectivist cMOOCs explored the potential of large groups of hundreds or even thousands of learners exploring a subject together, sharing knowledge, co-creating new resources and forming networks to investigate further. This type of educational ecosystem sometimes lasted well beyond the confines of the original course and became a variation on the crowdsourcing concept. The later more massive xMOOCs (Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn etc) form massive communities but seldom extend beyond the framework of the typically 6-8 week course format.

The article outlines a number of similarities between cMOOCs, xMOOCs and open collaboration crowdsourcing such as how IT is used for collaboration, different levels of openness, different types of crowd (general or specialised) and the size of crowd. The authors investigate potential areas of development for MOOCs based on crowdsourcing. One interesting avenue is to crowdsource feedback and formative assessment where large numbers of volunteers could each provide valuable interaction with learners as microtasks.

For example, already existing rubrics could be transposed into microtasks, or one entire microtask, to be put to virtual labor market crowds for evaluation. Then, given that virtual labor markets allow the massively parallel undertaking of tasks at low cost, virtual labor market evaluation of student work could provide almost instant assessment feedback. Though some may doubt a crowd’s ability to render accurate assessments, the research indicates that in some very complicated venues a crowd can perform as well or better than experts (Lee, 2013; Mitry, et al., 2013; Mortensen, et al., 2013).

Considering the dedication shown by Wikipedia contributors without any tangible recognition or payment as motivation there could be potential in crowdsourcing MOOC evaluation. However given the commercial nature of the main MOOC consortia (compared to the non-commercial, open, sharing culture of say Wikipedia) any MOOC solution should include some system of micropayments as motivation. Alternatively I can see space for microcredentials such as badges for those who volunteer to help MOOC learners. Students could earn badges for contributing to a MOOC that can enhance their CVs, showing professional engagement and proof of facilitation and assesment skills. This idea is no threat to teachers since they have no chance of even attempting to provide personal feedback to learners on a course with thousands of participants. Today's automatic testing provides basic feedback but direct contact with a human facilitator could provide the spark that can enhance completion rates. The challenge for MOOC-providers is to harness the potential of crowdsourcing and develop facilitator communities, possible by recruiting successful participants from previous MOOCs and providing attractive incentives.

Could a MOOC be run as a crowdsourcing project, offering a collaborative space to allow large communities to investigate and discuss a common topic? Where do we draw a border between a MOOC and a community or do we even need to define borderlines? Maybe the C in MOOC could stand for either course (a structured and limited format of guided instruction) or community (a less structured arena for collaboration around a common topic). The ideal scenario would be that a successful course seamlessly evolves into a dynamic community that takes over after the course ends.