Saturday, February 25, 2017

Trends take time - evolution not revolution

CC0 Public domain on Pexels
Trends are generally about relatively slow change processes rather than a quick flip from one state to another. This is especially true for digitalisation and despite optimistic claims of revolutions and disruption we're in the midst of a long and slow evolution in which some traditional concepts will disappear but many will continue to thrive alongside digital alternatives. Here are a few signs I've noticed this week that show that we're maybe not as digital as the popular narrative suggests.

I came across a new report on online learning behaviour, GoConqr Online Learning Report 2017, that contained a few slightly surprising observations. GoConqr is a social learning network where users can create their own learning resources, share them, create networks and collaborate. The report is the result of a survey on the online learning preferences of 2.5 millions users on the platform. Of course the learners surveyed here represent a very wide range of online learners and the platform does not represent any formal higher education but some of the findings are worth discussing.

The first concerns online collaboration, or rather the relative lack of it.

Despite the prevalence of social networking, online study tends to be a solitary activity: 79% of people choose not to study collaboratively when they are online.

This doesn't surprise me at all because effective collaboration is an advanced skill that takes time to learn and develop both face-to-face and even more so online. Most people can certainly post a comment or share a photo but collaboration involves working asynchronously on a common document or work space having agreed on ground rules on how to collaborate and using the right tools for the job. Online collaboration is an increasingly vital work skill today but is seldom taught in schools and universities. Most people still assume that online learning is by default a solitary pursuit and don't expect anything else even when joining a social learning community like GoConqr.

The next eyebrow-raiser is the claim that surprisingly few learners use mobile devices when they want to access educational content or create their own learning resources.

Learning is lower down the list of priorities for users of mobile devices. Using mobile devices for education is quite low compared to other activities.

This also goes against the prevailing narrative that learners are using mobiles to access courses and learning resources. The report suggests that although mobile use has exploded in the last 15 years we use them mainly for communication and more social activities and that mobile learning is maybe not as prevalent as we have assumed. I suspect that mobiles are used for access to content, checking schedules and chatting but maybe creative activities are more easily done on larger screens. I would like to see if universities can observe similar tendencies among students or whether GoConqr's survey is more typical of less formal learning.

Another digression from the standard digitalisation narrative comes in an article in University World NewsStudents not abandoning pen and paper – 10-nation study, referring to a new study by Jane Vincent (University of Surrey, UK), Students’ use of paper and pen versus digital media in university environments for writing and reading – a cross-cultural exploration (Journal of Print and Media Technology Research V (2) 97-106), showing how students still prefer to take notes by hand on the grounds that the physical action of writing seems to aid memory more than digital note-taking. There have been a number of studies in recent years all reinforcing the value of handwriting and warning against schools taking an over-enthusiastic emphasis on digital devices. Vincent's surveyed the writing preferences of 650 students from Europe and Asia and concludes that students are continuing to write by hand when that form has an advantage over digital media.

“There is no doubt that students have embraced the use of digital technologies in the educational setting of their university with enthusiasm but they have also found that the affordances of chirographic writing and the use of paper have special qualities that cannot be matched by digital media.”

Many tech skeptics pounce on studies like this to maintain that traditional media are still best but this study, like all the others I have read, shows instead that physical and digital media exist happily side by side and complement each other. The skill required today for both students and educators is being able to decide which tool or arena is best for the task in hand and stop seeing it as a conflict between tradition and modernity.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Over the horizon

CC0 Public domain by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
It's February so it's time for the annual NMC Horizon Higher Education Report on trends and challenges in educational technology. It is an extremely challenging task to select and define the key changes taking place or waiting ahead and since this is done every year the view towards the horizon will inevitably change from year to year. As a result technologies and trends seem to come and go almost at random and old friends return to the report after years of absence. This inconsistency is discussed and tracked by Audrey Watters in a commentary on this year's report, What's on the Horizon (Still, Again, Always) for Ed-Tech. Trends from previous reports suddenly disappear, prompting questions on whether they have flopped, been successfully adopted or are no longer considered relevant.

Although the report makes it clear that higher education faces daunting challenges in the near future it offers many useful examples of innovative projects and initiatives that point the way forward and show that there are answers to these challenges. However, the report is based on the assumption that the world is developing in a democratic and rational manner and that the political and social structures of the last 30 years will continue to develop in a linear and predictable way. The development of open learning, collaboration, innovation, learning analytics and artificial intelligence depends on a society that values the common good and respects its citizens. How will the growth of authoritarian, populist governments affect education, especially when representatives of such political movements openly question and even scorn the value of science and education? Surely the most wicked challenge for education today is political, as Watters points out:

There’s no mention of Trump and little discussion of state and federal education policies (accreditation, financial aid, for-profit higher education, DACA, Title IX, campus carry, for example). No mention of academic freedom (although, to be fair, there is a brief discussion of adjunctification). There’s very limited discussion of funding (that is, limited to discussion of “funding innovation” and not to funding higher education more broadly or to how students themselves will pay for post-secondary education or personal computing devices and broadband). Education technology in the Horizon Report is almost entirely stripped of politics, a political move in and of itself.

The report, as usual, discusses trends, technologies and challenges under various categories and classified under a timescale of 1-2 years perspective, 3-4 years and 5+ years. Of course you can discuss the classification, the names given to the different phenomena and the timescale but in the introduction the report's authors readily admit the difficulties of pinning down trends that are continually changing, shifting focus and tend to merge with each other. 

In observing the numerous overlaps from edition to edition, it is important to note that while topics may repeatedly appear, they only represent the broad strokes of educational change; each trend, challenge, and technology development evolves over time, with fresh perspectives and new dimensions revealed every year. For example, both mobile and online learning today are not what they were yesterday.

Very simply we're in a period of evolution as digital technology enables new approaches to education and learning. Educators and learners are trying out a wide variety of technologies and mixing them with traditional methods to create new solutions that may or may not have lasting effects. The technologies are so interrelated and their success so dependent on pedagogy, leadership and structural support that it is hard to classify them as the report tries to do. The key to change lies in attitudes.

... technology alone cannot cultivate education transformation; better pedagogies and more inclusive education models are vital solutions, while digital tools and platforms are enablers and accelerators. 

The report introduces six meta-categories which I think are more useful for understanding what's going on. All the developments listed in the report each fall under one or more of these meta-categories.
  • Expanding Access and Convenience. This includes access to content, communities, support, collaborative tools etc from any device and in any location. This of course assumes that you have the necessary hardware and infrastructure; something that is not available at present for millions.
  • Spurring Innovation. Institutions developing a culture of innovation, openness and collaboration for both staff and students as well as between institutions. Culture change in organisations is an extremely difficult challenge and requires full leadership commitment that is met by a grassroots interest.
  • Fostering Authentic Learning. Easing the transition from study to work by developing essential skills such as teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking and project management (both online and face-to-face). This requires considerable development in terms of learning spaces (physical and digital), course design, teaching and administration.  
  • Tracking and Evaluating Evidence. This includes learning analytics, adaptive learning and other technologies that offer the promise of personalised learning. Many concerns need to be resolved here about the ethics of storing vast amounts of student data and where it is stored. 
  • Improving the Teaching Profession. The future role of the teacher has been discussed for many years and even if perceptions are changing, the barrier of tradition is hard to overcome. There is still a general lack of incentives for innovative teachers, little professional support in terms of effective use of educational technology and a lack of recognition for pedagogical excellence.
  • Spreading Digital Fluency. I like this term since it has different connotations to digital literacies. Literacies are about awareness but fluency suggests skill and the ability to combine literacies in a professional manner.
The meta-trend that is missing is the increasingly unstable political climate in so many countries and the threat that poses to how the net will be used in the future and how that will affect education. Making predictions with a horizon of more than one year suddenly feels unrealistic. Let's see how this influences next year's report.

Download the NMC Horizon Report > 2017 Higher Education Edition (PDF)

Finally have a look at this film that takes you quickly through the main areas of the report in just under eight minutes.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Change is a shared responsibility

I read a short article on the news site eLearning industry, Why There Is Lack Of Enthusiasm Some Employees Have For Social And Collaboration Tools? about why digital collaboration has not really become mainstream, despite so many compelling arguments. The article deals with the difficulties of convincing employees of the benefits of online collaboration in the corporate sector.

... while many organizations have been full-heartedly adopting social or collaborative tools, these solutions work best when all members of a team use them. In most organizations, there is an evident struggle to get all employees interested in utilizing these tools to their fullest capabilities.

The article goes on to list barriers to the adoption of collaborative tools: lack of value, poor user interface and too many features. All of these are familiar issues, both in the corporate sector and in public education, but I would like to add what I think is the most crucial barrier to technology adoption - our instinctive aversion to unnecessary effort when we are faced with change.

Those who are curious about new solutions and embrace change are generally not satisfied with the status quo. Some are naturally inquisitive and are constantly looking for new ways to solve daily problems and are willing to put in extra hours to test and refine them. Change comes at a cost; long hours of trial, failure and frustration. However, if the potential reward seems great enough we'll make that effort.

On the other hand the vast majority of us are wary of change, primarily, I believe, because change comes at a price. If we're relatively content with the way we work today, there is little motivation to adopt new technology. Even if we suspect that the technology may make some aspect of our work more effective, that improvement is not worth the time we fear it will take to master the innovation. There's also the fear of failure - what if it doesn't work, what if I make a mess of it? The longer you avoid addressing this change the greater the effort required and this creates a vicious circle that I suspect many teachers are caught up in today. Many realise that they should have adopted technology many years ago but now it feels like the gap is so great that trying to catch up at this late stage is futile.

So what is the answer to the question posed by the article? A lot of responsibility lies at management level, leading by example and using digital tools in an exemplary way. Fostering an inclusive sense of community in the organisation where innovation is encouraged and most importantly recognised and rewarded. Providing support to staff, both in terms of educational technologists and online support, is essential so that no-one feels alone and that innovation is a shared process. Increased use of online collaboration tools can also be a feature of a sustainability programme, helping to reduce paper consumption or travel. If the change is a community effort and you know you are part of a planned and shared development with support and clear rewards great things can happen. Most importantly, we need to find ways of sharing and thus reducing the extra effort and risk involved in daring to change.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Layers of openness

I have been talking and writing about openness in education for the past ten years or so and still believe that openness in terms of access to educational resources, the right to reuse and recycle existing material and the open publication of research and academic discussion, is vital to a democratic and tolerant society. However my belief in openness has been shaken by the rise of "alternative truth", intolerance and demagogy that so dominate the public space today. I cannot unreservedly support openness as I would have done a year ago. Belief in the benefits of openness, crowd-sourcing or the wisdom of the crowd are based on an assumption that the crowd is benevolent, supportive and behaves in a civilized manner. Sadly we see so often that the wisdom of the crowd can easily turn into the rage of the mob.

How much openness in education can we advocate? Can we recommend students and colleagues to publish their reflections and findings in an open arena where there is a risk of being attacked, humiliated and threatened? Advocating openness is easy for those of us who have never been the subject of bullying, hatred and ridicule but we need to be more aware of the risks and make sure that we don't risk pushing vulnerable students into danger. An article in Campus Technology, Top Fears Shutting the Door on Open Education, looks at ways of helping teachers understand the benefits of using open educational resources and practices but also warns educators about an uncritical approach to openness. Words of caution come from Rolin Moe, formerly Seattle Pacific University:

Moe wants to see more administrators think critically about open pedagogy, using open pedagogy where it's most appropriate, rather than using it for its own sake. Scientific work, for example, might be more appropriate when taught openly. But something like creative writing, which is tied to the identity of a student, should perhaps be taught in a more protective environment.

Maybe we shouldn't aim for openness as default. The level of openness can depend on context and in some cases there are compelling arguments for using more closed environments. Of course there are many places where open discussion does take place without toxic comments but that fear will naturally make many people think twice about participating. I admit that I am much more cautious about joining certain discussions now and try to think at least twice about what I publish and where. If learning is hindered by openness and we learn better in restricted spaces then maybe that's where we need to focus our attention. Moe continues:

"My fear is that we're so beholden to this idea of open as a good, that we hold that above what the true purpose of learning is supposed to be in some cases," said Moe. "I want to encourage people to learn in grand and wide networks, but there are times when that's not going to be the best way to do it."

I wonder if we have to redefine openness into a layered approach; levels of openness depending on context. Simply insisting that everything must be open is sadly not realistic in today's society and when we do step out into the open we need to be prepared both for the opportunities and the threats. Preparing for openness means first working in more sheltered environments where mistakes can be made and analysed. Students who are worried about going open should be respected and an alternative safer arena chosen for sharing their work. More time must be spent on discussing what can and cannot be published openly, how to handle discussion threads, how to deal with trolls and how to use the safeguards, filters and settings available on most publishing tools. The open ocean is probably not the best place to learn to swim.

I still believe in openness but I see many benefits in closed or restricted environments. They allow us to create a learning community based on mutual trust and respect, where mistakes can be made and learnt from. Full openness demands maturity, confidence and skill to negotiate.