Sunday, September 23, 2018

Open learning - back to basics

CC0 Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
The term open in education can mean almost anything today and should always be taken with at least a pinch of salt. Some MOOCs are now disappearing behind paywalls as described for example in Class Central's post First Look at edX’s Paywall Experiments. Many commercial platforms thrive on selling our data to advertisers and most online tools depend on the freemium model and if they cannot convert enough free users into paying customers they may go bust or ditch the free option completely. Many resources and courses have become dependent on commercial platforms that can quickly change their business model with very little advance warning or use the data they collect to earn money. I wonder therefore if it is time for a renaissance for the open non-commercial platforms and communities run by educators that have fallen by the wayside in recent years.

Stephen Downes wrote an excellent defense of the principles of open education a few months ago:  The Fabrication that is OER. The post is an answer to critics who claim that the OER movement has not been able to find a viable platform or business model and has not become mainstream. The counter claim is that it's all about educators who want to share their work, form communities and create a culture of sharing using whatever tools and platforms that best serve their purpose. It's not about creating an all-embracing platform for the world or to trying to institutionalise openness.

I'm not interested in collecting, institutionalizing, and marketing educational content as a product. Maybe there are some people in OER who are really interested in this aspect of it (and they tend to collect together, write manifestos, work with institutions, and collect all the funding). But I'm not, nor are, I think, the vast majority of people who actually produce and share free and open learning content.

I'm rather comforted by this since I have spent many years arguing for government initiatives, open education strategies including the creation of national and international repositories. This is happening in some places but is mostly a painfully slow process. Should we be trying to change the world or simply focus on building reliable and non-commercial arenas for those who want to share and collaborate?

In recent years the spotlight has been on high-profile and increasingly commercial platforms such as Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn, Khan Academy, iTunes U and so on. However many of the open communities and platforms that we used to use are still running, though very much under the radar of the media and most educators. I mean spaces like Wikiversity and WikiEducator as well as more focused platforms like the World Health Organisation's OpenWHO or the open courses hosted by the Commonwealth of Learning, to name but a few. I admit that I have not paid much attention to these spaces in recent years but I wonder if it's time to return to platforms that we have more control over and are run by open educators for open educators. They may not have the attractive features and intuitive feel of the commercial platforms but they are ideal places for collaborative projects and are not driven by advertising. 

I wonder if we really should be aiming at converting the skeptics and trying to win government approval and instead focus on helping those who do want to share, developing truly open platforms and communities. It's not a battle against traditional practices; it's about open educators "doing what they do" (to paraphrase Downes again). 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Unplugged teaching - when tech is irrelevant

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
We who live in affluent countries see internet access as essential to our daily lives and can hardly imagine being without our precious digital devices. Working with educational technology I often assume that everyone has broadband internet access and the latest devices that enable them to use all the educational platforms. tools and apps that we recommend. However, we need to remember that there are still many people even in the most developed countries who are marginalised and excluded from the digital development. When these people enter the education system we need to be prepared to forget our digital resources for a while and focus on traditional teaching - unplugged.

I have been talking to teachers who work with refugees and migrants, both in voluntary organisations providing orientation and basic language skills to new arrivals as well as those involved in more formal training for those who have been granted asylum. There are of course lots of online resources aimed at refugees as well as course material and guides for teachers but there are situations when they all become irrelevant and teaching has to be conducted offline. Although many refugees have brought their smartphones with them and could use them to access, for example, language learning apps there are a number of barriers that are easy for us to forget. Many of them can't afford more than a simple pay-as-you-go mobile account that generally has a low limit for internet access. Downloading and using apps will simply eat up their month's bandwidth quota making these resources largely useless unless they find free public wifi access - not always so easy to find in some cities. Some have outdated mobile phones that don't do apps or can't download new apps that only work on the latest operating systems.

Then there is the basic issue of learning how to learn online. Many have never even thought of using technology to assist learning and need considerable support to get started. Others lack basic digital skills apart from messaging and voice calls. If you do have access to an app or online resource then it's very likely that the instructions on how to use it will be in the language that you are just starting to learn adding to the frustration. Another often underestimated factor is fear and mistrust. Many refugees are extremely suspicious of anyone or anything who may represent the authorities (due to experience from home plus the fear of deportation) and any digital communication that they don't feel secure with will also be treated with suspicion. When you feel so vulnerable you are not willing to try something new.

The result is that many teachers stick to more traditional classroom teaching and for the learners this is both more familiar and secure. Many learners will feel most comfortable with a textbook or written notes and the stress of adapting to new tools and media can be counterproductive. When you're struggling to adapt to a totally new environment and a new language you are not very receptive to yet another field that makes you feel inadequate. Over the last few years I have taught voluntary courses in basic Swedish for refugees waiting for asylum status and, despite my work with educational technology, decided to teach almost completely offline. Some learners were very digitally skilled and had smartphones but some were not. I found resources for the digitally skilled learners for them to try outside class but in class I took the lowest common denominator with paper, pencils and lots of coloured cards to play with.

My point here is that no matter how well you use technology in your teaching there will always be situations when you have to rely on your fundamental teaching skills and make the most of the available resources. Never become too reliant on technology and never forget how to teach unplugged.