Sunday, January 28, 2018

Online learning - the road to credibility

CC0 Public domain on Pexels
With the abundance of online education, including MOOCs, it is easy to assume that global online education is already established and recognised. However, an article by Christopher Ziguras in University World NewsWill global online higher education ever take off?suggests that online education is still struggling to gain credibility in many countries and that the numbers of students taking online courses in countries other than their own is actually rather small. Certainly there has been a massive growth in online education in recent years but it's not as international as we may think.

... when we look at cross-border education, the scale of fully online provision is still miniscule. There are around 150,000 students outside Australia enrolled in Australian qualifications: two-thirds in university programmes and the rest in vocational and upper secondary qualifications.

Virtually all of the school and vocational education students, and more than 90% of those in higher education, are studying on a branch campus or with a local partner institution. And yet for decades we have seen predictions that students who cannot travel abroad to study, either due to cost or commitments at home, would seek out foreign study options online.

Enrolling in an online degree at a foreign institution is often a complicated process since the enrollment procedure is aimed at students from that country and naturally the forms are in that country's official language(s). On top of that are the fees which in many cases are higher than studying at a local institution. Those who do enroll from abroad tend to be citizens of that country living elsewhere and who know the national education system. In the EU the Bologna agreement has to some extent opened up European higher education but applying to study online at a university in another country is still not simple. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this, such as virtual mobility programmes where students can attend online courses at partner universities as a for-credit part of their own studies (see for example the recent OUVM project). However, the numbers of transnational students in online courses are still more exception than norm.

Universities with a large international outreach have their own campuses in strategic locations around the world or run courses in partnership with local institutions. Here they can blend traditional campus teaching with online elements from the host institution and offer international degrees without students having to leave their own country.

The main sticking point for fully online education, according to the article, is credibility.

Many governments, including China, India and Vietnam, refuse point blank to recognise foreign degrees undertaken online, citing a range of concerns. They believe the quality of online study is inferior, legitimate providers are difficult to distinguish from online degree mills and they perceive online student fraud to be rife.

Despite international quality guidelines and labels for online education the whole area is tainted by the abundance of fraudulent practices, bogus universities and degree mills. Furthermore there are the recurring concerns about the risks of plagiarism and cheating in online courses. All these issues are being addressed and solutions are emerging but the road to credibility will take time. Above all we need wider adoption of internationally recognised quality labels for online courses to make it easy to distinguish between quality education and fraud. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

New Twitter guide for educators

Photo: David Truss, with permission
Twitter is still a tricky tool to introduce to teachers. Sadly their general impression of Twitter is negative, associating it with fake news, trolls, celebrity trivia and toxic political mud-slinging. Creating an account means flinging yourself into the gladiatorial arena and opening yourself to attacks from all sorts of monsters. Persuading understandably skeptical colleagues that Twitter can also be used to create a valuable professional network and even community of practice is definitely not easy.

Twitter isn't an easy tool to adopt and the rewards are long rather than short term; basically you need a critical mass before the benefits become obvious. You need to follow people and people need to follow you and until you build up a network you'll be tweeting into the wind and no-one will know you exist. Like all forms of network building it takes time, patience and a lot of trial and error. That's why you need a clear reason for using Twitter and most importantly you need the help and encouragement of an experienced user.

If you're curious enough to give Twitter a chance and you want learn how to get started in a systematic and informed way then I can recommend a very practical guide in the form of a free e-book written by David Truss, Twitter EDU - Your One-Stop-All-You-Need-To-Know-Guide to Twitter. This book can be downloaded to your laptop, tablet or mobile in a number of formats and takes you through all the basics of using Twitter, essential rules of Twitter netiquette, finding people to follow and building an educational network. To get the most out of the guide you should create a Twitter account before you start and then you learn to tweet by tweeting for real. The guide can save you a lot of time, effort and despair since it focuses on good practice, respect for others, giving credit and responsible networking. You also get tips on how to spot and avoid typical spammers and time-wasters. Even if you are an experienced user like me, you can benefit from a quick browse through the guide.

One small line of wisdom explains why attitude is so important for success with Twitter, or any digital tool for that matter:

“If you think Twitter is ‘dumb’ or ‘a waste of time’, well then it will be.”

Although Twitter is certainly full of highly toxic and dangerous rubbish you can easily avoid it by following trusted colleagues and communities. My own feed is almost exclusively about education and every day I find links and ideas that are extremely useful in my work. I've also made friends and valuable contacts through Twitter and have met some of them in person. As David points out in the book you need to view your Twitter feed as a never-ending stream of information that you dip into now and then rather than trying to read everything; as your feed grows you very quickly realise the impossibility of this approach. Dip in a few times a day and see what's floating by just now. Forget what went past in the time you were away, what you don't see you don't miss.

But the real key to success with Twitter is engagement. To get something out you have to contribute. If you show that you provide useful information, ideas and tips then people will follow you. If you show your appreciation for the information you receive your reputation will grow and you will widen your network. Actually the normal principles of human communication apply in digital spaces, contrary to the common myth that digital communication is somehow virtual, cyber or not real life. Being kind and respectful pays off, even in Twitter!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Silent learners guide

For the past couple of years I've been involved in a Nordic project looking at how to be more responsive to the needs of silent learners, especially in online education. We started out with the notion of lurkers, a rather pejorative term that assumes some kind of suspicious behaviour, but quickly realised that being silent does not mean that learning is not taking place. Many are working, not lurking.

Education today focuses so much on active student involvement and collaboration and it's easy to forget that a great deal of learning takes place in silence and alone. Have we actually neglected this aspect of learning in our enthusiasm for activity and engagement? Furthermore, there are many learners who learn best that way and avoid group work and collaboration as much as possible. This can be due to shyness, insecurity or simply because group activities take up so much valuable time, sometimes involving conflicts and compromise. Collaboration is an extremely important skill to learn but there are different ways to collaborate. We need to give space to the silent learners or introverts and let them contribute in their own way. They may not be so vocally active in the brainstorming or creative activities but they may be excellent at note-taking, summarising and analysis. We need to empower the silent learners and let their skills enrich the collaborative process but we also need to help more vocal and active learners to develop their own silent learning skills. In order to let the quiet learners participate in group work the vocal members must develop their listening skills, deep reading skills and their ability to observe and summarise.

One tangible product from our project is a short and concise guide, Silent learners - a guide, with lots of practical ideas for both teachers and students. The guide also describes our own journey from seeing these learners as a problem to seeing the issue as one of inclusion and accessibility and that we need to take all learners into consideration when designing courses, not just the vocal and active ones.

The issue behind this guide is making education more inclusive and so we need to offer alternative pathways for learners and ensure that different competences and learning strategies are recognized. Collaboration does not always demand noisy synchronous meetings but can also involve more silent asynchronous activities where everyone can contribute using a variety of media. Introverts are often invisible in synchronous group work, but if that discussion is continued in an online asynchronous learning space then the more reflective learners are more likely to contribute effectively. Developing better asynchronous collaboration also empowers learners with special needs by allowing them more time to make a response and thereby making a valuable contribution to the group work. Another group of learners that would benefit from a more flexible and inclusive approach are non-native speakers who generally need more time to understand the subject matter and formulate their ideas and are therefore disadvantaged in synchronous discussions.

You can read more about the project activities with links to several webinars and other resources on the project site, Silent learners.