Sunday, October 29, 2017

Developing online collaborative competence

CC0 Public domain by Geralt on Pixabay
Education has until the last 20 years always been based around synchronous meetings in a physical space. Lectures, seminars and group discussions take place at scheduled times in specific places and if you can't attend, you miss out. The alternative was self-study. Digital technology has enabled the rise of asynchronous interaction, at first as simple text-based discussion forums and later developing to include audio and video interaction, social media, simulations and game-based learning. However, synchronous interaction is still seen as the ideal form for education and asynchronous interaction is still a second-best solution. A large proportion of educational technology is devoted to replicating the physical synchronous meeting as lecture capture, webinars and online group discussions using video, chat or both. However I would like to suggest that asynchronous interaction should be given much more respect and that we see it as a complement to and at times a better alternative to synchronous interaction.

Strengths of asynchronous interaction
  • You are never alone in your studies. Support is always available, either in the form of recorded tutorials and FAQ pages or by asking questions in class forums and other online communities. In many asynchronous online communities you can get answers within minutes and of course if necessary you can easily meet colleagues in a chat or a video call to discuss your problem.
  • Everyone has a voice. In synchronous arenas (both classroom and in web meetings) only the most confident students have a voice and dominate the discussion. Often it's the teacher who takes centre stage, even in seminars. In a discussion forum or using video tools like VoiceThread or Flipgrid everyone gets a chance to make their point and be seen and heard. Many students want to read more and reflect before voicing an opinion and the asynchronous mode gives them time to do so.
  • More time to think can lead to a deeper and more nuanced discussion. Often in class the opinions raised are spontaneous and superficial. The online discussion gives time for ideas to mature and the level of discussion can therefore be deeper.
  • Greater flexibility. No matter when you prefer to study you can still be part of the discussion.
  • Enables global participation. Trying to find a suitable synchronous meeting time for students from different time zones can be a major headache. An asynchronous arena offers suits everyone.
Weaknesses of asynchronous interaction
  • Effective asynchronous interaction is dependent on synchronous meetings to establish a sense of community in the group. This can be achieved by meeting either in a physical space or online but without first building an atmosphere of mutual trust and a sense of belonging all asynchronous interaction will be at best superficial.
  • Large open discussion forums will also become dominated by the vociferous minority and can easily become toxic unless a clear code of conduct is communicated and enforced. Better to divide the class into study groups with facilitators/tutors to establish safe spaces for real discussion.
  • Reaching a critical mass. Groups need a certain amount of encouragement and motivation to discuss effectively and this means that some members must be very active at the start to provide lots of positive feedback to comments and encourage the quieter members to contribute. This requires a conscious effort and training.
The key to more effective use of asynchronous learning spaces is the development of online collaborative literacy. Few people today have this skill and simply don't know how to use online spaces for meaningful discussion. One way to develop is maybe to re-examine how we use synchronous meetings and in some cases replace synchronous with asynchronous. I'm not saying that we should not meet each other in the future, that is a basic human need, but that we need to learn how to interact in new ways as well. The widespread use of asynchronous communication in the business world makes learning this skill a central part of higher education. We need to learn how to fully exploit the advantages of asynchronous learning spaces.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Redefining "failure"

Success is the exception, not the rule. This idea struck me when reading an article on Wikimedia's blog, The crowdsourcing fallacy, which examines the pitfalls of building a service on the so-called "wisdom of the crowd". The clearest success story in this field is, of course, Wikipedia. If it had been pitched as a commercial project it would never have got off the ground, but the fact that it is the result of an unprecedented level of voluntary public collaboration has built up by far the largest reference work in human history. On paper, the venture was a non-starter, as the article states, "it only works in practice; in theory it could never work”. Its success could never have been planned, as is the case with most success stories. The success narrative of crowdsourcing is very attractive and has lead to many brave ventures, but the post provides a vital reality check: Your crowdsourcing effort will fail, most of the time, because most things fail. And because important things are hard.

We all love success stories. They can inspire us to study, work hard and persevere. At conferences we are fed a diet of best practice, projects that exceed expectations or innovative companies that have hit the headlines. We idolise business leaders who made it big and circulate their words of wisdom in the hope that some of the stardust will touch us. Our increasingly competitive culture is reinforced by countless reality TV shows where the winner takes it all and failure is not an option. To be branded a loser is the worst humiliation you can receive. The problem is that for every winner there must be millions of "losers" and success is the exception rather than the rule.

Of course we can admire and congratulate the successes but we need to look more realistically at failure. The word itself is loaded with prejudice. If success is so rare, then partial success or a lack of success are the norm. Success often comes unexpectedly and cannot always be rationalised. Often it's simply about having the right idea at the right time and getting the right breaks. Equally good or better ideas with equally sound business plans and strategies can sink without trace. Many failures, however, can then form the embryo of future success, so we need to question the use of the word failure; failure on what time scale?

What I wonder about here is that we need to move away from this simplistic categorisation of success/failure or win/lose. Most things we try to do have limited effects and don't usually meet our high expectations. Instead of seeing this as failure we need to see what we can learn from each venture and move on to try a different approach or a new angle. Success stories can give us a vision to aim towards but not getting there should be seen as perfectly normal and acceptable. Too many people today are hooked on the lure of making it big that they cannot be satisfied with anything less. All our efforts are part of a learning process and although each step may not seem to make any kind of impact they add experience and ideas to an iterative process. Even a total failure offers lessons to be learned if we can accept them on that level and not fall into the success/failure trap.

Too much of our education system (and of course society in general) is based on competition and the inhuman belief in the survival of the fittest. We should instead be developing collaboration and problem-solving and this requires that we stop branding activities and people as successes or failures. If learning is the focus of education then failure becomes a lesson learned and success an occasional happy outcome. A new vocabulary and mindset is needed.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Searching for the next big thing

Just over the next hill we'll find Eldorado. Just one more reorganisation and we'll reach Nirvana. Waiting for the killer application. The problem with this is that once you get over that hill you find a new hill on the other side but we still cling to the idea that one day we'll get to the perfect solution to our problems. In education the quest is to find the ultimate teaching method and the corporate sector leads the race with a great deal of brave predictions and powerful marketing campaigns.

An article by John Warner in Inside Higher Ed, MOOCs Are "Dead." What's Next? Uh-oh, takes up this theme after Udacity's announcement that they are dropping MOOCs and instead focusing on online corporate training. Udacity and their founder Sebastian Thrun have been responsible for many of the most hyped statements about MOOCs over the past few years and have recently been promoting MOOC packages, nanodegrees, as new paths to employment. This move was soon echoed by other MOOC consortia in the form of micromasters and specializations. The article points out that Udacity's journey from MOOC evangelists to drop-outs has taken a mere five years (feels like at least double that time). Major changes in education simply don't happen as quickly as return on investment requirements demand and reveals that the whole idea was much more about launching a profitable product than finding a viable new form of education. It is all part of the eternal quest for a teaching machine (see Audrey Watters' excellent summary of this phenomenon) based on the belief that teaching and learning are predictable processes that can be effectivised and productified.

Maybe Udacity isn’t strictly a teaching “machine” except the mentality of its designers suggest they view their platform this way. They believed that the platform itself could deliver “education,” rather than recognizing that the education is not a product but a process, one that happens (or not) inside of those being educated. Udacity seems to view learning like a virus. As long as you’re in close enough proximity to an educational product, you will learn.

At the same time there is plenty evidence that MOOCs are far from dead but maybe they have turned a corner and are heading back to the higher education sphere from whence they came. A new European report by EADTU, MOOC strategies of European institutions, shows the diversity of MOOCs in Europe and in particular the fact that European institutions are increasingly developing open courses outside the framework of the main commercial consortia.

The survey shows that the majority of HEIs (66%) are not connected to one of the big MOOC platform providers (e.g., edX, Coursera, FutureLearn, Miriada X, etc.), but offer their MOOCs in their institutional platforms or in available regional/national platforms. That the uptake of MOOCs in Europe is maturing at a much higher level compared to the US, is also an achievement of the regional, partially language-bound platforms.

Maybe as the corporate sector becomes impatient of the low return on investment from MOOCs, the universities will begin to develop open education on their own terms in regional and national constellations. The MOOC is not a miracle cure for anything but is one of many forms of online education under development. The form came from within higher education, was briefly exploited by big business and seems now to be returning to the universities where there is (hopefully) more of a focus on learning than making a profit.

The corporate spotlight is now moving over to new potential "wonder cures" such as personalised learning and learning analytics. I don't mean that these innovations are not worthwhile; they all contribute to development, sometimes in unexpected ways. However, there are too many intangible factors involved in learning that cannot be encapsulated in any one technical solution. You learn because someone inspires you, because you have the internal motivation, because you have the right support from teachers and peers, because you have access to education, because ... Courses, tools, platforms, resources, games, simulations can all contribute but the intangibles of learning are so important that none of these factors can guarantee success. There is no magic solution to learning. It's very personal.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Invisible skills

A recurring theme in the media is the perception that universities are not equipping students with the skills demanded by employers and that there is a serious gap between theoretical knowledge and practical work skills. One common complaint is that university degree certificates generally focus on describing mastery of content rather than the development of soft skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, leadership, digital literacy etc. Of course, matters have improved over the last 20 years with learning outcomes often including practical skills and many programmes that include work experience and close cooperation with industry. However, there still seems to be a problem in reliably assessing soft skills and including this in credentials.

A new report, Skills, Competencies and Credentials, by Alan Harrison (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) investigates this issue and argues that university credentials still fail to provide the information that employers require when hiring staff.

This state of affairs does not serve most undergraduate students well: the graduating student’s credential and the associated transcript indicate the extent of the student’s knowledge of content, but neither directly conveys any information to employers about the level of the student’s skills. As a result, employers, in respect of most undergraduate degrees, must infer the level of skills from information about content knowledge.

The report describes an awareness gap; the problem that students themselves are often not aware of the skills they have developed at university because those skills were not explicitly part of the assessment. Developing critical thinking, for example, is integrated in all courses but is often done so in a manner invisible to the students and not explicitly tested. Many projects and assignment aim to develop creativity, teamwork, communication and organisational skills but that aim is not always clear to the students nor are the skills explicitly developed or assessed and recognised. 

Harrison then looks at several attempts to address these issues such as competency-based degrees and e-portfolios and comes to the conclusion that greater cooperation is required between universities and employers in determining key skills and agreeing on how to assess these.

Universities must come to terms with two facts: first, their undergraduate programs are where general skills are developed and second, it is these skills that make the graduates of these programs employable. Universities need to work with each other and with input from employer groups to the point where they agree on both what these skills are and how they are most effectively assessed. Once this is resolved, the next step will be to embed these skills into the curriculum and include the outcome of the assessment of these skills in a concise student record that quickly and effectively tells employers what the graduating student knows and can do. In short, the universities need to do all they can to help students make the match with employers.

One promising element missing in the report is the growing use of badges by universities to provide evidence of soft skills. Badges are awarded to students who meet set skills criteria during their course work and can be a very useful supplement to the more content-based formal credentials. However as long as badges are not tied to the hard currency of credits they may be seen as merely optional extras by students rather than as essential elements of their degrees. I wonder if badges are then the real answer. The answer lies probably in providing more comprehensive credentials that describe both the knowledge and skills acquired. 

Reference: Harrison, A. (2017) Skills, Competencies and Credentials. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Into the open - but only when you're ready

Openness takes courage and confidence. Even in the relatively secure setting of an institution's learning management system it's a major step for many to post a comment on the class forum and even more daunting to publish a blog post or comment publicly. What if my comment is seen as too simplistic or if I have completely misunderstood the question? What if my argumentation is too thin or my references wrong? What if my language skills are not good enough and I make a stupid grammatical error? What can I contribute to a discussion that is already full of better ideas than I can think of? By actively participating I become very vulnerable. Many learners therefore choose to take a low profile and avoid open learning spaces. Many see study as a private activity and see little benefit in sharing and discussing, especially in full public view.

It's always a rewarding experience to be a student now and again and find out how active and open you really are as a learner. Martin Weller has written an interesting post on his recent experience as an online student, What I learnt from being a student. He describes the feelings of inadequacy many students experience and despite his academic standing as an expert in open education he was grateful that his course offered him the safety of a closed group.

I would have been reluctant to have been forced to display this scarcity of knowledge in the open, so I was grateful for a closed environment, and careful feedback from tutors to scaffold my learning.

Participation and collaboration are skills that need time and support to develop. Not all learners realise why these skills are important and so interactive assignments must be clearly justified and the benefits of collaborative learning explained. This means starting with simple interaction in small closed study groups and then progressing to more complex interaction as the group begins to develop a sense of community.

Give me a reason to interact – given my time constraints, I didn’t do much interaction in the forums. And this was fine with me, I was glad the course didn’t make lots of interaction compulsory just for the sake of it. But also without a major prompt to do so, it was easy to avoid interaction all together, and if this was my first time studying, that would be a shame.

We often assume that openness and active participation are essential to learning and to a large extent this is true. However there are several layers to openness and each layer takes time to master before finally daring to "go public". For some learners, the small group discussions are as far as they want to go in terms of openness whilst others relish public view from the start. But the ground rule must be not to force openness on learners but instead let it develop in stages, making sure that each step is justified and supported. If some don't want to go all the way into the public space then that should be respected. It is, after all, the learning that is central.