Friday, August 31, 2018

We have always been easily distracted

A recurring story in the media is that our powers of attention and concentration have been seriously eroded by the rise of digital communication and in particular social media. Almost every day I see news items, blog posts, memes, rants and discussions on how we are slaves to our digital devices and can't focus on one task at a time. We fondly believe that in pre-digital days we were so much better at deep reading, reflection, writing and listening and seldom got distracted by trivia. If I try to think back to my younger days, especially as a student, I think I had trouble focusing even then. Even if the level of distractions was lower than today, I'm not sure I was so efficient. I remember that my mind wandered regularly to irrelevant thoughts, I stared out of windows, went to get more coffee - anything to avoid the task in hand. When I had an assignment to write and the deadline was approaching I deliberately went to the most boring and obscure corner of the university library to escape the distractions of other students, good views or proximity to a cafe. I got the work done but despite the spartan surroundings I still found it so hard to focus.

Maybe we've always been easily distracted. An article in The Outline, No, the internet has not destroyed our attention spans, refers to new research indicating that our short attention spans are the same as they've always been. Researchers at Princeton University have been comparing attention spans of humans and macaque monkeys and found that we have a lot in common. Both species have the ability to switch rapidly between a focused activity and checking the surrounding environment for potential danger and that this switch occurs four times a second. This ability has been vital to our survival as a species quite simply.

... well before the invention of mobile phones, humans were a cognitively distracted species that can only focus on one thing in quarter-of-a-second blocks. This inability to focus isn’t a flaw, but an evolutionary adaptation: Being able to flick between highly focused and diffuse attention gives us the ability to concentrate on a complex task while also being aware of our surroundings, making us the dynamic, hyper-alert creatures that we are today.

It seems we have an in-built need to continually monitor the world around us as a basic survival instinct and that makes us even more susceptible to the lures of social media. The research at Princeton is further described in an article in EurekAlert!The spotlight of attention is more like a strobe. We don't simply switch on and off four times a second but we are always ready to switch focus even if we don't notice the process.

Perception doesn't flicker on and off, the researchers emphasized, but four times per second it cycles between periods of maximum focus and periods of a broader situational awareness.

"Every 250 milliseconds, you have an opportunity to switch attention," said Ian Fiebelkorn, an associate research scholar in PNI and the first author on the macaque-focused paper. You won't necessarily shift your focus to a new subject, he said, but your brain has a chance to re-examine your priorities and decide if it wants to.

There is no doubt that the modern world has a vast range of distractions to tempt us with and we need to work hard to resist them and even try to minimise their intrusiveness. However it's somehow comforting to know that our potential for distraction is no greater today than it was 2,000 years ago.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Higher education - would you like that bundled or unbundled?

CC0 Public domain by congerdesign on Pixnio
Unbundling of higher education means that instead of studying at one university and following a degree programme from start to finish you can instead take courses from a wide range of institutions, earning credits, certificates (for example from MOOCs) and microcredentials (open badges etc) as you go and then presenting your portfolio to an institution that can assess your learning and award you credits or even a degree. The concept of the do-it-yourself university has been around for many years now and unbundling is presented as a liberating force in education putting the learners "in the driving seat" and allowing greater freedom and flexibility.

However, that slippery word freedom is very subjective and the people who benefit most from this new model are those who already understand the educational system and have the digital and study skills to take advantage of it. The vast majority are unaware of these opportunities and lack the necessary skills to get on board. Even if you do, there are still no guarantees that a future employer or university will recognise the new credentials you have gathered. There is plenty of excellent work on the recognition of open education and microcredentials, for example, the ongoing European projects ReOPEN and Open Education Passport (OEPASS). The new credentials must be accepted and integrated into national and international frameworks and these projects as well as other similar initiatives are looking at practical models for this.

But even if you can assemble your own personalised degree programme from the vast range of courses available today, is it really the equivalent of three or four years of concentrated study at one institution where the courses are designed to complement each other and you are immersed in an academic environment with seminars, tutorials and discussion to support your learning? This is questioned in an article in Times Higher Education, Microcredentials 'undermine' learning.
Leesa Wheelahan of the University of Toronto questions whether a collection of certificates from a wide range of short training courses can really match a full coordinated degree.

“A lot of the rhetoric about micro-credentials and digital badges is that people should be able to build degrees by aggregating all these bits. ... This is a fragmented vision in which the total is the sum of parts ... It undermines the role of degrees [in] preparing individuals for work and life by engaging with a deep and sustained body of work, knowledge and skills.”

A do-it-yourself degree could mean missing essential elements of a full degree. Many MOOCs and other online courses focus on content transfer or practical training rather than collaboration, discussion and reflection and although the content may be equivalent to the formal equivalent the end result in terms of learning is not the same.

“If something is to qualify as higher education, it should require individuals to engage in debates and controversies in that field [to] develop perspectives as practitioners. Micro-skills training is just that – training – and this is not why we have invested in universities.”

I see great potential for microcredentials to recognise soft skills, work experience and open learning but I'm not sure that the concept of the do-it-yourself university is a practical solution except for an extremely skilled and educationally mature group. In order to choose wisely among the myriad of online courses most people will need considerable guidance and support The option of a rounded, well-designed degree programme (campus, online or both) from one institution will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

What is a lecture worth?

Today you can watch millions of university lectures in all disciplines completely free and in many cases download them to your mobile or tablet. In addition, many universities offer course content as open courseware. For the past 15 years we have seen that content is no longer king and since it is openly available for free the real value of a university lies in providing the context through teachers who can lead discussions, put issues into perspective, inspire, challenge and support their students. However most institutions still protect their content, locking it away from public view, as if it was a valuable commodity. Of course there is content that may be sensitive but since so many universities in the world are state funded it seems strange to hide content that has been publicly funded.

An article by Joshua Kim in Inside Higher Ed, An Incredible College Lecture Is Now Worth 40 Cents, highlights this issue through the example of an online course on the history of London. This course is not open or free but the cost says something about the value of even high quality content.

I purchased this course from the Amazon owned As a Platinum Annual subscriber, the cost for the course was $9.56. The course has 24 lectures of about 30 minutes each. The cost per lecture, therefore, is about 40 cents. 40 cents.

Despite the line-up of leading authorities in the field and high quality production the course price is extremely low. Even in a commercial setting the price is 40 cents per lecture. Of course if you take a MOOC or other open course the cost is precisely zero. At the same time quality content is extremely valuable for the learner in terms of their learning and is also expensive to create. I'm not sure how sustainable this model is and in the end we may see a system whereby micro-payments per user can finance content production in some way. Those who produce good content deserve some reward and incentive to continue.

However in a world where so much content is free and often licensed for reuse and adaptation then why do so many institutions still spend so much time and money on making their own content? If content is easily shared then institutions can reuse and adapt content at low cost and focus their attention on adding real value in terms of fostering learning and supporting students. Do many universities still base their courses on content delivery and their examinations on content recall? Shouldn't teachers be encouraged to use more open content and spend their own time helping students to make sense of them? Kim ends his article with these two questions:

Is your school transitioning from a teacher/content focus to a learner/learning focus?

How do we keep what is wonderful about the lecture format, but fold in elements of active and relational learning in to the DNA of higher education?

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Open education in Palestine

Bethlehem campus
Open universities all over the world aim to offer higher education to non-traditional students, often in rural and underprivileged areas of the country. The challenge is to create learning communities where students are spread all over the country and seldom, if ever, get the chance to meet physically at one location. This challenge is particularly acute at Al Quds Open University (QOU) in Palestine which I visited last week as a guest speaker at their conference Digital Transformation in Continuing Education (30 July). The university offers education throughout the West Bank and Gaza where travel between towns is either difficult or, in the case of Gaza, virtually impossible. The multiple campus university is united digitally and all courses combine online studies with on-site meetings and support.

Al Quds Open University was founded in 1991 and today has around 55,000 students, 8 faculties and 19 campuses/study centres (14 in the West Bank and 5 in Gaza). All courses mix online learning with classroom teaching at the local study centres. The courses are delivered through a variety of platforms: the learning management system Moodle, the academic portal, a media platform, QTube, with a wide range of lectures and information films, a portal for sharing slideshows, the open repository OSOL for scientific journals and other publications and various mobile applications. The university is committed to open educational resources and the vast majority of material has a Creative Commons license and they publish five open access scientific journals. Fees are kept as low as possible (around $350 per term) but are the major source of funding together with donations. As well as the standard e-learning platforms the university also has its own satellite TV channel, Al Quds Educational Channel, broadcasting both academic content as well as educational documentaries for general interest as part of their outreach strategy. The channel is free and reaches households all over Palestine and the programmes are also freely accessible worldwide via the website. I visited their studios where a dedicated team of media professionals produce an impressive range of programmes with many live discussions and lectures from their studio as well as documentaries.

Map showing the study centre areas
I was particularly interested in the study centres (branches) and how they support the students. The study centres host lectures, seminars and examinations but are also places where students can come to use computers, get academic and technical support as well as meet each other. Each study centre has academic staff who can teach on-site and there is also a network of part-time teachers who teach and work with course development. Blended learning is default since students need a social context for their learning and the regular meetings at the study centres helps to keep them on track even though most of the course work is online. They also offer courses on learning how to learn with a focus on learning online.

I visited the centre in Bethlehem which hosts around 4,000 students (78% female) and has 24 full-time teaching staff plus administration, a library and educational technologists. Last year 400 students graduated in Bethlehem and this year’s ceremony say 450 graduate. As well as these centres the university has two mobile educational centres; lorries equipped with laptops, generator, satellite wifi and teachers that drive to outlying rural areas and offer ICT training to remote schools. This is part of the university's commitment to continuing education, coordinated by the Continuing Education and Community Service Centre and offering lifelong learning, digital literacy and professional training all over Palestine via the study centres. At present there are even plans to start a study centre in Syria to serve Palestinians there.
Poster advertising the mobile educational centres

A particularly interesting new development is the range of non-credit self-learning open online SMART courses that are specially adapted for mobile delivery and are available via Google Play and similar platforms. These courses offer basic training in subjects like English, Arabic, digital skills and now the first Arabic open course on OER (Open Educational Resources). These courses are available to anyone for free and interaction between students takes place on Facebook groups. QOU are also active contributors to the pan-Arabic OER community, ALECSO OER.

Combining online learning with on-site support in every region offers students both the flexibility they need to study and the sense of community that will support them through their studies. With travel between many of the regions challenging and time-consuming the digital spaces provide a common meeting place for all.