Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Memories of an analogue world

Digital technology is such an integral part of our lives today that it's easy to forget how things were before the revolution. Unlike many of my colleagues I was completely uninterested in computers until the internet came along. Pre-1990 computers were simply more trouble than they were worth and I couldn't see any advantage in learning how to use them. But once I discovered www I was converted; suddenly the world opened up!

The fact that a large section of the population doesn't know what life was like before the digital revolution is captured in a post on Quartz, What it feels like to be the last generation to remember life before the internet. The article reviews a new book by Michael Harris called The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. It's very popular for my generation to be skeptical or even dismissive of today's digital deluge but Harris avoids such sweeping generalisations and instead reflects on how his own behaviour has changed over the years, especially in terms of being always connected. We have become addicted to connection and terrified of missing something.

“When you wake up, you have this gift of a blank brain. You could fill it with anything. But for most of us, we have this kind of panic. Instead of wondering what should I do, we wonder what did I miss. It’s almost like our unconsciousness is a kind of failure and we can’t believe we’ve been offline for eight hours,” he says. It is habits like this that are insidious, not the internet itself. It is a personal thing.

I think we can all identify with the feeling of being a slave to our updates and feeds. They provide us with recognition, approval, belonging and those are extremely powerful motivators. Harris recommends spending a month on digital detox as a way of reflecting on your digital identity, something I haven't tried and suspect I would find extremely hard to achieve unless I combined it with a holiday in some remote part of the world.

But let's think back to the "good old days". How did we communicate then? Today I can keep in touch with hundreds of friends and colleagues on social media to the extent that when I do meet one of them in person I can immediately ask them about their daughter's recent wedding or their new job. I know contacts on Facebook are fairly superficial but for 90% of my connections the alternative is no contact whatsoever. I remember when I first moved to Sweden in 1983 I spent many hours a week writing, with pen and paper, very similar letters to friends and relatives in the UK. Without a photocopier I simply had to write the same thing again and again! This was very time consuming but was quite simply the only way I could keep these relationships going. Phone calls were extremely expensive and generally carried out in draughty phone boxes that had an insatiable appetite for coins.

Keeping in touch with the latest news was tricky until I had learnt Swedish. English language newspapers were available but tended to be at least two days old and tuning in to crackling radio broadcasts from the BBC World Service wasn't so uplifting either. The idea that I could write my own reflections, publish them myself and gain a worldwide audience (i.e. this blog) was beyond my wildest imagination. My music collection was not portable until the Sony Walkman came along and so all those hours spent waiting for buses and trains as well as the actual journeys were spent in bored silence unless I had a newspaper or book with me.

I visited many interesting places on holiday and would normally take one 36-exposure film for my camera. Developing them was pretty expensive so my memories of these days are now only a handful of decent photos (generally up to half of the photos I took were terrible!). It never occurred to me that I should take a photo of myself sometimes and the result is that I have almost no photos of myself between 18-30 years old, a period that is now seen as prime selfie time.

At work my network was pretty well restricted to the people who worked in the same office plus a few other contacts who I met now and again. When I was not in the office I was simply not available. Messages could be left with the switchboard operator or sent by post. If I needed an answer, however simple, and the person responsible was away on business or holiday I would simply have to try again next week. Collaboration with people in other cities or countries was unthinkable.

Of course our digital world has lead to a magnification of many negative human traits such as hatred, bullying, fraud and narcissism but at the same time has also enabled us to connect with people from all over the world, work together on projects that would have previously been impossible, share our ideas, learn more about other cultures and get a far broader perspective on the world than ever before. Both sides of the coin co-exist though of course we must work harder to promote the positive side. Digital technology is an enabler and the choice of how we use it is ours.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

MOOCs making an impact in developing countries

MOOCs have been criticised by many on the grounds that they have so far only attracted those who already have a university education and live in developed countries. Several studies have pointed in this direction and this has been used as evidence that MOOCs have largely missed their objective of making higher education more accessible to those who are for some reason unable to access traditional forms. However very few have so far actually studied MOOC participation and attitudes in developing countries to see whether they have made an impact or not.

A new study from the University of Washington, The Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative: An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, & South Africa, has done just that. They have studied 1400 MOOC learners from Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa and looked at completion rates, attitudes and satisfaction as well as asking employers about their views on MOOCs as valid credentials on the labour market. What they found was in stark contrast to the commonly held view that MOOCs have missed their mark.

Many of the key findings of this study are surprising. They challenge commonly held beliefs about MOOC usage, defying typical characterizations of how people in resource-constrained environments use technology for learning and employment purposes. In fact, some of the findings are so contrary to what has been reported in the United States and other developed environments that they raise questions necessitating further scrutiny.

Around 80% of the learners studied had low or medium income and the vast majority had low or intermediate digital skills levels. Furthermore almost half of the respondents received a certificate for their MOOC participation, far above normal levels, and many saw MOOC participation as a step on the way to recognised professional qualifications. The employers in the survey were generally positive to MOOCs and awareness was fairly high. They were not seen as equivalent to traditional education but at the same time were not simply dismissed. This all suggests that MOOCs are indeed making an impact where they are most needed and in the conclusion of the article the authors recommend further studies in this area.

In closing, the authors believe this study has made a significant contribution to understanding MOOC usage in less-developed country contexts that both provides stakeholders in workforce development and education with insights and offers a foundation on which future research can be built. The potential for increasing MOOC uptake and improving employment opportunities, especially for more marginalized populations, is clearly there. This is promising, and urges action since the data shows that MOOC users are savvy in using the knowledge they’ve gained from MOOCs to advance their professional aspirations.

I hope we see further work in this area because there is enormous potential for open education and we need to challenge the negative image of MOOCs only attracting middle class graduates from developed countries. If there are signs that they are offering opportunities to people without access to traditional higher education they need to be encouraged and brought to light. It is particularly interesting that most of the learners in the survey did not see technical issues and lack of infrastructure as major barriers to learning from MOOCs. Those who want to learn find a way round such issues in general.

However I also believe that open courses (not all open courses are MOOCs and not all MOOCs are open) can benefit far more people in both developed and developing countries if we can also offer them the right scaffolding. Organisations such as libraries, learning centres, vocational training colleges etc can offer face-to-face and/or online support groups for open learners, providing academic support, technical support, Englsih language support or the opportunity to discuss the course in their own language. The massive open arena of a MOOC can be very intimidating to those new to online learning and so maybe we can provide them with safe havens, small restrictive groups, for less confident learners to discuss problems with peers and in a familiar environment.

Garrido, M., Koepke, L., Andersen, S., Mena, A., Macapagal, M., & Dalvit, L. (2016). An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, & South Africa. Seattle: Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Teaching is teamwork

One of the biggest barriers to the uptake of educational technology is the simple fact that teachers are already overloaded and don't have time for professional development or testing new ideas and methods. Many already devote hours of unpaid overtime each week to keep up with marking, preparation and a never-ending stream of reports and administration. They realise that they may lack some necessary digital skills and that maybe they should spend more time redesigning their courses but good intentions generally come to nothing when the term starts and the day-to-day demands of teaching must get top priority. Furthermore, teaching is still seen by many as a solo activity where you are expected to be subject expert, classroom manager, IT-support, counsellor, administrator etc. The demands of teaching today mean that trying to combine all of these roles in one person simply leads to stress and feelings of inadequacy.

Teachers are stressed and the solution generally offered by governments is to hire more teachers. This is of course positive but a post by Willem van Valkenburg, We don't need more teachers, we need more course teams, offers a wise alternative solution, namely shifting the focus to giving teachers more support in the form of multi-skilled course teams. Team teaching has been around for many years but the teacher is only one part of the teams that Valkenburg proposes. Teachers need the support of an educational technologist, librarian, assessment expert, multimedia expert, student assistents and so on. One teacher simply cannot be expected to perform all of these roles, even if there are many who make valiant attempts to do so (often at a cost to themselves).

Investing in extra teachers in higher education might seem like a proper way of spending extra budget. Investing in better course teams will have a much bigger effect to unburden teachers. Don’t invest in extra teachers, make existing teachers much more effective by properly supporting them. So better value for money!

The key is a change of culture and such changes are the hardest to achieve. The solo teacher is a strong symbol in our society and is embedded in the way educational organisations are run. Moving towards a team model demands changes in how education is run; it affects budgets, quality systems, regulations, job descriptions and career development. Many attempts to move towards a team culture are thwarted by traditional structures and administrative restrictions. The role of support staff needs to be made more visible and rewarded accordingly. Many institutions have all of these support roles in place but they are thinly spread and the concept of a course team is not established in the institutional administration and culture. When teachers can focus on teaching and work as part of a qualified and recognised team then we can move forward. Until then we will simply keep trying to put out fires.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Unsocial networking

Have you noticed a change in your Facebook feed over the last couple of years? How many genuinely personal posts do you see per day? In the past we laughed at the idea of people posting what they had for breakfast or other daily trivia but today I welcome such posts because they connect me with a person. Sadly most posts in my feed are just soapboxing or commercial. Many simply broadcast "evidence" for their particular ideology and in many cases there is no real invitation to discussion. So I am well aware of the ideological convictions of many contacts (they remind me several times a day) but know little of the person behind. We've moved away from creating our own content to sharing others' content, preaching to the converted and at the unconverted. The network isn't really social anymore.

There was so much promise that social media would foster dialogue and collaboration over borders but sadly they are becoming echo-chambers and in some cases lawless arenas where bullies, bigots and extremists destroy all attempts at open discussion. Many people are bullied into leaving the main platforms like Facebook and Twitter and even if you're not subject to troll attacks there's simply not enough meaningful interaction to make it worthwhile staying. Instead of promoting freedom, openness and democracy, social media seem to be having the opposite effect. Of course there are still excellent groups and communities where genuine interaction thrives but these are mostly closed or restricted due to the threat of spammers and trolls.

This especially important in education where social media can offer exciting new oportunities for sharing knowledge, resources and experience, both for teachers and students. However I can understand many teachers' reluctance to use social media professionally when they see the excesses that are often spotlighted in the media. Even in professional circles the discussion can turn sour and it only takes one troll to spoil a whole community. Because of this it is essential that we discuss collaborative and participative literacy with colleagues and students and take care to create common ground rules for the communities we use.

I suspect it is too late to radically turn the tide but maybe we can think a little more about how we use social networks and try to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Here are some personal preferences and tips, in no particular order:
  • Don't preach. Interesting articles are fine but not the same topic all the time. You won't change my views by bombarding your contacts, they will simply switch you off.
  • Be personal sometimes. Tell about your life, small bits of trivia, with a bit of humour and self-distance.
  • Please don't use reposting options that use several platforms at once (eg everything you post on Twitter is instantly reposted on Facebook). It can be seen as spam. 
  • Develop your own basic social media plan. Decide on clear profiles for each of your accounts and stick to them, eg Twitter for work related material, Facebook for more personal content, Instagram for photos, LinkedIn for purely professional matters.
  • If you want to post daily photos and updates of your children, cats, gym visits, diet etc consider creating a group for this and inviting friends who you know will be interested. You can arrange your friends on facebook into different categories and then when you post you can choose whether to broadcast to all or to send only to one category (eg cat lovers). The rest of us don't mind occasional glimpses into these areas but not every day!
I confess I have broken these rules myself but I'm trying to clean up my act!
Do you recognize this trend? Any other tips?