Sunday, March 26, 2017

Strategies for digital reading

CC0 Public domain by Tranmautritam on Pexels
Many people are concerned about the effect digital devices are having on our reading ability, in particular our ability to read deeply and focus on longer and more complex texts. The most common issue is that when we read digital texts we are usually online and thus vulnerable to the sirens' call of social media. Digital reading has certainly helped to improve certain reading skills such as skimming, browsing and checking links and references but when you need to concentrate and read deeply then print has a clear advantage. Reading a text on an online device could be compared to reading a book in the living room where the rest of the family are watching TV, playing, chatting and generally trying to attract your attention. However if we eliminate the distractions is there any difference in reading a longer text in print or on a tablet or laptop?

We read both print and digital texts every day and I don't see that changing any time soon. Instead of arguing about which one is better we need to focus on developing students' reading skills in both environments, recognising that the digital environment is different and demands special attention. This issue is discussed in an excellent blog post by Michael Larkin, To Read Well on Screens, Change Your Mindset. There are a number of factors that affect how we read digital texts: type of device, online or offline, screen resolution and back-lighting as well as the type of text being read. This means it's hard to make direct comparisons between digital and print reading because it all depends on the digital context. However, the key to effective reading in any medium is your ability to minimise the number of distractions.

Teaching our students (and, again, ourselves) how to be better self-regulators is crucial to our success as screen readers—especially when we’re online.

Maybe we find it hard to concentrate on a digital text because we normally use the device for entertainment and social contacts. You associate your tablet with social media and expect to be pleasantly distracted almost constantly. Reading a scientific article on the same device, even if you close the wifi connection, is therefore a challenge because we've been programmed to expect distractions. We need to learn to become more conscious of our digital reading and develop strategies for tackling longer texts. This demands concentration and self-discipline.

Help students to cultivate a screen reading mindset that they’ve got to bring effort, and effort of particular types, to be able to read successfully on digital devices. Perhaps most prominent among these practices is that they need to reduce distractions as much as possible and resist the medium’s associations with speed, efficiency, TL;DR [Too Long Didn't Read], and entertainment.

Larkin recommends teachers to create digital reading activities that help students become more aware of their powers of concentration, or lack of them. They need to learn how to read from beginning to end and resist the temptation to skim and jump around in the text; in short, learn how to slow down. These self-awareness activities can of course also be applied to print reading since many people lack strategies for reading any type of longer and more complex text.

However, we also need to bear in mind all the advantages the digital text has over its print counterpart, in particular the support available to people with reading difficulties and sight impairment. Digital texts can be magnified, vocabulary can be checked and translated and there are many text to voice applications. Digital texts are accessible in a way that print can never be but this massive advantage is seldom raised in the media stories of the dangers of digital reading.

An article on Mind/ShiftStrategies to Help Students ‘Go Deep’ When Reading Digitally, offers practical teaching strategies for helping students read digital texts more deeply. The article highlights the use of Google Drive to teach students how to take notes, highlight and summarize. A longer text can easily be copied to a Google document and then the students work in pairs of groups to highlight important points in the text, summarize sections, identify new vocabulary and comment on colleagues' notes. In this way they collaborate in making sense of a complex text and develop strategies for their own deeper reading.

Reading digital texts is a skill we all need to learn but the most important strategy for effective reading in any environment is eliminating the potential distractions. Just as we try to find a quiet room to read a printed novel we also need to find a quiet digital space to read. Once the distractions are minimised it's just you and the text and I'm not sure there is such a great difference then between print and digital, even if we have our own personal preferences.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Creating integrated online and on-site workspaces

By Deskmag - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Just as the borderline between classroom and online learning has become blurred so has the concept of the workplace. Technology enables many of us to work effectively from just about anywhere with decent internet access and you would think that the traditional office and the daily ritual of commuting would be on the way out. There's little sign of that but the concept needs to be redesigned.

At many universities faculty corridors are becoming rather lonely and quiet as more and more staff chose to work from home or elsewhere according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Our Hallways Are Too Quiet. One major reason for this trend is the fact that you can often work more effectively away from the office.

A big reason for decreased faculty presence in their campus offices is technology. Networked computers that allow one to write anywhere also allow us to have conversations with students and colleagues that used to take place in person. Creating new course materials and ordering books is easily done online. Cloud software has made pretty much all our work processes easily done from home, a vacation cabin, a foreign conference hotel. For many scholars, this has been a very liberating occurrence, giving them wondrous flexibility.

The growth of working in national and international projects where physical meetings are a luxury and most meetings are online means that for many people (including myself) the office has become a digital rather than a physical space. I work in many different organisations and networks and a day at the office often consists of five or six online meetings, one after the other, and my only contact with my colleagues in the building are at coffee and lunch breaks. As virtual organisations grow then the importance of the physical office space will logically decrease but this change was forecast 20 years ago and it hasn't really happened. Distance working and virtual teams sound great but many organisations are unwilling to trust their staff to work from home and in many cases office presence is demanded even if it is often not necessary. Somehow the ritual of going to the office is a hard one to break. It's partly about trust and a fear of losing control but it's also about retaining a sense of community and identity. An organisation based on solitary home workers will not generate much loyalty or sense of belonging. We need to gather somewhere to develop working relationships.

There's a similar situation when it comes to students on campus. For many it is perfectly possible to study and collaborate with colleagues from home and if lectures are recorded why come to campus at all if you don't happen to live there? Many were worried about this when more and more content went online and with today's collaborative tools you can also have close face-to-face online contact with tutors and study groups. The role of the campus is therefore being revised from being a place where you were a consumer of content in lecture halls to a place where you actively discuss, experiment and produce in flexible learning spaces. Classroom time needs to be made be unmissable, the time when you can solve problems, discuss issues in depth and carry out practical lab work that cannot be simulated. You simply have to be there.

So back to the office. The online element will continue to develop and we can't expect everyone to be at their desks from nine to five. We need to create workplaces that are worth going to but where the online element is nevertheless essential. Both the physical and the digital spaces need to be integrated. Many workplaces have become creative and flexible environments with space for teamwork, online collaboration and silent concentration but sometimes the focus is so much on the on-site work that the online element is only included in some activities rather than being ubiquitous. In the academic world however both teaching and research have traditionally been solitary activities. I suspect that this, rather than technology, is the main reason for the empty corridors mentioned in the article. Technology has simply made it easier to stay away but the tendency has always been there as long as the focus has been on the individual.

The key is more collaboration and teamwork. If course development is a team activity then the workplace needs to be designed to facilitate this. The same goes for research teams. Maybe we also need to create spaces where staff and students can mix and work together. However it's not just about the physical space. Most teams and projects will always have colleagues who are elsewhere and it's essential that the on-site and online spaces are as seamlessly connected as possible. You simply can't expect everyone to always be on-site and you will always need external expertise.

To enable this video communication needs to become even more ubiquitous so that meetings with online colleagues can be set up easily and with a good quality connection from every part of the office space. Online colleagues can then be brought into any discussion without the need to book a certain room or spend time setting up headsets or external speakers. Document sharing, collaborative writing, online work spaces and asynchronous discussion spaces also need to be standard practice. Are there ways to allow online colleagues be part of social occasions in the office? Maybe allow them to drop in on a coffee break or celebration. We can invest a lot in redesigning the physical space to facilitate collaboration but we also need to redesign the online spaces so they offer similar inspiration and ensure that the two worlds are integrated. The office space can and should be repopulated but we need to expand the concept and see the office as both a physical and a digital space.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Open means accessible

CC0 Public domain on Pexels
One important aspect of openness is accessibility but how many open educational resources meet accessibility guidelines?  How many films offer subtitles and a text manuscript, can all texts offer text to speech, are there transcripts of audio podcasts and are there options for slower playback of video and audio material? The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide all the necessary guidelines for web-based content but I suspect a large amount of educational content falls short (maybe even this blog!).

This has been a largely overlooked aspect of openness but an article in Inside Higher Ed, Berkeley Will Delete Online Content, reveals that Berkeley's whole open courseware program has been called out for not complying to accessibility legislation.

The Justice Department, following an investigation, in August determined that the university was violating the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The department reached that conclusion after receiving complaints from two employees of Gallaudet University, saying Berkeley’s free online educational content was inaccessible to blind and deaf people because of a lack of captions, screen reader compatibility and other issues.

Complying with these demands would be a time-consuming and costly process for the university; 20,000 audio and video files would have to be upgraded. So Berkeley have chosen to remove the offending resources from the public space and put everything back where it came from, closed behind the university log-in. This process alone is calculated to take between three to five months.

“In many cases the requirements proposed by the department would require the university to implement extremely expensive measures to continue to make these resources available to the public for free,” Koshland wrote in a Sept. 20 statement. “We believe that in a time of substantial budget deficits and shrinking state financial support, our first obligation is to use our limited resources to support our enrolled students. Therefore, we must strongly consider the unenviable option of whether to remove content from public access.”

This would seem to be a major blow to open education and I can imagine that many other institutions will be checking their own open courseware to see how well it meets accessibility requirements. But most importantly it shows that accessibility should be built in to all educational resources, whether they are publicly available or restricted access. Moving resources from public view doesn't solve the problem because you need to ensure that all students can access and use the resources as part of their education. It would be very sad if this endangers the further development of openness in education but if it means that awareness of accessibility will be raised than maybe it's a step that must be taken.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

In your own words ...

The cat and mouse game of plagiarism detection is becoming increasingly difficult for schools and universities as the technology that assists cheating becomes increasingly sophisticated and hard to detect. Simple straight plagiarism generally gets caught by the widely used detection tools like Turnitin but these tools are relatively powerless against more advanced forms of cheating. The most effective method is a human solution like essay mills where students can earn money writing other students' essays and guaranteeing "originality". This is almost impossible to detect unless there are genuine examples of the students' writing to compare with. However a new grey area of plagiarism has come to light with the rise of automatic paraphrasing tools that can rephrase a text so that it will not be flagged as plagiarism in automatic checks.

Paraphrasing is one of the most important skills that students must learn. Summarising a text to capture the essence in your own words and of course providing a reference to the source is a skill that takes years to perfect. However many people are unsure of where the line is drawn between paraphrasing and copying; simply changing a few words to synonyms is not enough and in all cases the original text must be cited. A new study by Ann M. Rogerson and Grace McCarthyUsing Internet based paraphrasing tools: Original work, patchwriting or facilitated plagiarism?, examines how these paraphrasing tools, also known as essay spinning, can be used to evade plagiarism detection and the implications for both students and teachers.

There are many free paraphrasing/essay spinning tools, for example Paraphrasing Tool and GoParaphrase are both tested in the study, and all you do is paste in the text you want summarised and then click for the new text. The results are not impressive, often with many unusual synonyms and awkward turns of phrase but in many cases the text is sufficiently far from the original to avoid being detected in a plagiarism check. If you are willing to pay there are more sophisticated tools that no doubt produce more polished paraphrasing. The study showed that the resultant texts were not detected as plagiarism by standard anti-plagiarism tools. So how can we detect this practice and more importantly how can we prevent people from being tempted to use such tools in the first place?

One aspect that interests me is when paraphrasing is used by non-native English speakers who may be weak at paraphrasing on their own due to limited vocabulary and lack of linguistic fluency. The unusual vocabulary that the paraphrasing tools dig up could be seen by the teacher grading the essay as simply linguistic inexperience rather than signs of automatic paraphrasing. For native speakers this would hopefully start alarm bells ringing but it's not so easy for non-native speakers, most of whom will make similar errors when genuinely paraphrasing themselves.

Where a student is considered to lack the necessary linguistic skills, the errors or inaccuracies may be interpreted by assessors as a student having a poor understanding of academic writing conventions rather than recognising that a student may not have written the work themselves. Where an academic is working in an additional language, they may find the detection of the errors or inaccuracies more difficult to identify.

Another aspect is when the paraphrased text includes references. One amusing side effect of these tools is that even the references get paraphrased and the titles of cited articles get changed beyond recognition, as well as finding synonyms for the authors' surnames. However if you paraphrase a text and use the citations without acknowledging that you did not find these references yourself then that is also dishonest. Finding your own references to support your arguments is an integral part of academic writing.

Furthermore, students using an online paraphrasing system fail to demonstrate their understanding of the assessment task and hence fail to provide evidence of achieving learning outcomes. If they do not acknowledge the source of the text which they have put through the paraphrasing tool, they are also guilty of academic misconduct. On both counts, they would not merit a pass in the subject for which they submit such material.

What can educators do to prevent students from using these tools? The most obvious strategy is to discuss the issue regularly in class, showing that you are aware of these tools and pointing out the dangers. I suspect that many students are simply unaware that automatic paraphrasing is wrong. More support should be offered developing paraphrasing skills and why it they are so vital. Furthermore, the wider use of oral testing is recommended in the article since it is much harder for a student to take short cuts and the teacher can quickly gauge the student's understanding of the subject. Finally educators need to learn how to spot signs of machine translation and automatic paraphrasing and realise that their own professional judgement is still the most important element in assessing student work, even when anti-plagiarism tools are in place.

Of course this post is itself an example of paraphrasing to a certain extent. I hope I pass the test!

Rogerson AM, McCarthy G.(2017) Using Internet based paraphrasing tools: Original work, patchwriting or facilitated plagiarism? International Journal for Educational Integrity