Sunday, April 29, 2018

Beyond the horizon

Photo: CC BY Some rights reserved by Vancouver film school
The annual NMC Horizon reports on trends in educational technology have been eagerly awaited and intensively debated over the past decade or so. Last year New Media Consortium unexpectedly went out of business and it looked as if the reports would also disappear. However Educause were able to acquire the rights to the report and the back issues and have also succeeded in finalising this year's report, though understandably a few months behind normal schedule. They have just released a preview of the higher education report, NMC Horizon Report Preview 2018, with the full version promised by the summer.

As usual, the report has been written by about 70 experts from around the world and identifies key trends and challenges in educational technology in higher education from a short, medium and long-term perspective. This year, as before, contains few real surprises since all the technologies mentioned have been on the radar for some time and many of them never really become mainstream, despite all the predictions and innovative initiatives.

The full report will contain detailed analyses of the trends and valuable links to current initiatives in each area. Here are the trends in brief:
Driving educational technology adoption
  • Short-term: Growing focus on measuring learning, Redesigning learning spaces.
  • Medium-term: Proliferation of open educational resources, New forms of interdisciplinary studies.
  • Long-term: Advancing cultures of innovation, Cross-institution and cross-sector collaboration.
Challenges impeding technology adoption
  • Solvable: Authentic learning experiences, Improving digital literacy.
  • Difficult: Adapting organizational designs to the future of work, Advancing digital equity.
  • Wicked: Economic and political pressures, Rethinking the roles of educators.
Important developments in educational technology for higher education
  • Short-term: Analytics technologies, Makerspaces.
  • Medium-term: Adaptive learning technologies, Artificial intelligence.
  • Long-term: Mixed reality, Robotics.
For me the most intriguing category is the wicked challenges impeding technology adoption. Rethinking the role of the teacher doesn't seem to be so radical an idea, considering the wide adoption of collaborative learning, flipped classroom, project-based learning, peer assessment and so on. The transition from lecturer to facilitator is still controversial and even when the teachers are positive there are significant barriers in the form of regulations, efficiency demands and the most wicked of all - tradition. Unless the new role(s) of the teacher is accepted then the other trends may not play out as predicted.

The other wicked challenge only hints at what I see as the biggest threat to all these developments. Economic pressures on universities are growing and governments are increasingly focused on accountability, financial efficiency and simplistic league tables and rankings. However the last two years have shown us that changes in government can quickly reverse years of educational progress, especially when populist cries to return to the "good old days" become educational policy. Further personal data scandals could quickly undermine all trust in the companies who have driven the edtech movement. We have learnt that development is neither linear nor predictable and that just about anything can happen to upset the trajectory. That is probably the most wicked challenge.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

On-site and online learning - different but equivalent

Online students are different to campus students and therefore online course must reflect these differences: they are older than most campus students, they tend to combine studies with work and family and they appreciate the flexibility of the online format. However, they are very similar in terms of their desire to learn, their need for social interaction, feedback, and a clear teacher presence. Strangely, these vital elements have been omitted from many online courses, despite the fact that there are platforms and tools that can provide that vital social element. Somehow it has been assumed that online learners are content with content-based self-study and as a result the whole field is viewed by many as a "next-best" option. This is discussed in an article by Sean Michael Morris in Inside Higher Ed, Online Learning Shouldn’t Be ‘Less Than’. Why should online learners be less interested in the social aspect of learning and be content with behaviourist content consumption?

But if online learning is more rudimentary, less nuanced, personal, complex than campus learning, that betrays an implicit assumption that so are online students. But “nontraditional” doesn’t mean unacademic. Online students are students like on-campus students. Just as curious, just as hopeful, just as genius, just as troubled, just as excited and unsure. Have we built, do we sustain, an online learning that embraces these students? Do our online courses actually accommodate them?

This simplistic model has even created a vicious circle where students often expect online courses to be relatively undemanding self-study and are therefore surprised and confused when they are asked to actively participate. Indeed many campus students try to cram in extra credits to their full time studies by also taking an online course, thinking that the extra course will not be so demanding. When they realise that the online course is just as demanding as the campus ones they are forced to drop out, unwittingly and ironically contributing to the argument that online learning has low completion rates.

Online courses demonstrate the university's commitment to lifelong learning and outreach, but the article asks if we are not short-changing our online learners by not offering the full university experience.

Which leads me to ask, do online courses accommodate students at all? Or do they cater primarily to an ideology of efficiency, retention, “student success” and numbers that institutions can report? Are online classes provided for learners, or are they intended to extend a university’s reach, its revenue-generating enterprise? Certainly if the latter, then the quality of online courses needs only meet that standard that students will tolerate for the sake of the credential, the carrot on the stick.

The point is that a university course demands a lot of the student in terms of engagement and commitment, regardless of whether it is delivered online or in a traditional setting. Online learning is neither a short-cut for the learner nor a cost-saving strategy for the university. It should certainly not be seen as a second-best, watered down version of the "real thing". Courses should be demanding, interactive, social, stimulating and challenging whatever the delivery method. The technology and pedagogy are there, we just have to use them.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Padlet and Scoopit - the perils of freemium in education

CC0 Public domain by Environmental Protection Agency on Wikimedia Commons
A common belief is that everything on the internet should be free, forever. However if a person or company has invested time and resources to build up a service, tool, platform or app then they generally need to earn something from it. Several models have therefore been developed to at least pay lip service to the concept of free whilst enabling the creators to make some money out of their product or service. There are three main categories of free:
  • Free services that are developed and maintained by voluntary communities of experts and enthusiasts in the spirit of the early internet (eg. Wikipedia, Linux, Moodle etc). They rely on goodwill and enthusiasm and can therefore become vulnerable if the community leaders no longer have the time and energy to lead the work.
  • "Free" services that are financed by targeted advertising, where you are in effect the product (eg. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc). These are, of course, under hard scrutiny today.
  • Freemium services where there is a free basic version but you are expected to upgrade to the pay version to get full functionality.
In education we use a lot of freemium products and services and teachers seldom upgrade to the pro versions. Some companies have made the mistake of making their free version too generous and as a result they get few upgrades and therefore risk going bust (as in the case of Storify). Recently, two of my favourite freemium tools, Padlet and Scoopit, have decided to severely limit their free versions in the hope that many of their customers will be prepared to go pro. This has, of course, irritated many teachers around the world who have integrated these tools into their teaching and find the price of upgrading just too high. Read a longer article on the case of Padlet on EdSurgePadlet’s Price Update Riles Teachers, Raises Questions About Sustainability of Freemium Models.

I use Padlet every week as a flexible and attractive collaborative work space for workshops, brainstorming and storyboarding and have been a happy paying customer for a couple of years now. I made the decision to upgrade as soon as I realised how important the tool was for my work but when it comes to other tools I'm not so sure how to procede.

Scoopit is an excellent curation tool and for the part 5 years I have saved interesting articles there and shared my links with anyone who might be interested (see my Scoopit page). It has an attractive layout and feels like a blog even if you don't have to provide any input yourself apart from linking to content elsewhere. Now the free version is limited to 50 posts (I have amassed 3340 posts as a free user) and if you want more space you need to sign up for the pro version at $14.99 per month. I don't mind paying for a few essential tools but there is a limit and in this case I will just have to learn to live without Scoopit. Of course there are alternatives that still have fairly generous free versions (Pocket, Pinterest) but the question is when they too will decide to trim their free versions. The big question here is what is a reasonable price for these tools that are affordable for educators? Very few teachers, if any, will feel like paying over $100 a year for any net-based tool. I suspect that the companies will have to adjust their subscription models again in the near future. the present price of Scoopit, for example, will only attract business users and the education sector will simply move elsewhere.

The landscape of educational technology is shifting fast just now. As I have written in previous posts, there is an increasing awareness of the dangers of using commercial "free" platforms like Google and Facebook in terms of integrity and security and now an increasing number of freemium services are restricting their free versions. The internet is a marketplace and we will probably need to pay for the services we use in the future. Yes we will still have truly free and open services run by enthusiast communities but the vast majority of web services will have a price tag. If you don't pay you will have to accept a bombardment of ads and lack of privacy as the price of free. A sad development but not unexpected.