Saturday, December 29, 2018

Covering your digital footprints

CC0 public domain on Pixabay
I learned a new term today that encapsulates what I have been worrying about for the past year or so when working with educational technology: surveillance capitalism. Our tools, platforms and channels are watching and storing our every move and happily profiting from our data. Our most treasured possessions are bugging devices that we happily spend enormous sums of money and time keeping up-to-date and always connected. Forgive me if I write yet another post on this topic but the topic is simply too big to be ignored. This past year I have made a few adjustments to my digital life in an attempt to become a little less dependent on the commercial tech giants. I have dumped Google Chrome as my browser, I search with Duckduckgo, thoroughly reviewed my security settings on Facebook (but can't bring myself to leave), tried Mastodon, the non-commercial alternative to Twitter and a few other changes, but I realise I'm still in too deep for my own good.

So how can we help our students to navigate this minefield and what tools and platforms should we use to maintain a decent level of integrity? An article by Erin Glass on Hastac, Ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom . . . next term!, contains some excellent advice for educators who would like to move to a more responsible use of edtech without risking data leaking to unknown companies. The article kicks off with a snappy challenge:

Are you watching in sheer terror as BigTech's four horsemen Surveillance, Exploitation, Manipulation, and Cataclysmic Hubris gallop wildly down the information superhighway, downloading their user-friendly death and destruction as far as the eye can see?

The article is not, however, simply doom and gloom. It offers a list of concrete measures for raising awareness among students and colleagues through classroom activities and the application of critical thinking to the platforms and tools we use every day. Just as we need to combat fake news with an increased focus on source criticism we also need to investigate the infamous terms and conditions we so happily have agreed to over the years. What exactly have we agreed to? How can I reclaim my data, if at all possible? What sort of data is stored? How can I delete my account and if I do is the data really deleted? It may seem like a daunting task but the important thing is to realise that we can do something and these issues must be discussed.

Transform your personal paranoia about surveillance capitalism into fodder for cross campus dialogue, research, policy development, and community building. Reach out to your librarians, digital scholarship/humanities specialists, IT workers, humanities centers, and other campus organizations about exploring options to raise awareness about these issues, such as reading groups, talks, and workshops.

The commercial solutions are of course extremely attractive, addictive and easy to use and it's hard to see how to replace many of them but we can make a start by testing out some of the tools mentioned in this article. I am currently trying out the Tor browser that not only does not track you but makes your identity impossible to detect for the sites that feed on that information. Another interesting tool is the chat and messaging service Rocket.Chat that offers an alternative to Slack and other similar commercial tools. I'm also considering moving my blogs onto safer platforms using the service Reclaim hosting. This would be a major undertaking for a non-techie like me and my blogs have 10 years of posts to safely move but it sounds like a good New Year resolution for 2019.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Behind the edtech glitter

As the end of the year approaches it is customary for experts, news media and bloggers to reflect on what has happened and try to draw some conclusions for the future. Before you read any of these, I would like to point you in the direction of Audrey Watters' blog post, The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2018). Audrey has been a tireless campaigner for a more balanced and mature view of the role of technology in education and has warned repeatedly about the dangers of simply riding the wave of edtech hype and accepting the corporate storytelling. Normally she writes a series of in-depth articles at the end of the year, critically analysing trends in edtech. This year, however, she sees an enormous mismatch between the continued glowing promises of the industry and the harsh realities of today's education system (especially the USA): poor employment conditions for teachers, segregation, increased cyber bullying and hate crime, school shootings, increased surveillance etc. Ironically a major growth area in the edtech sector is now school surveillance and security systems.

This year, she summarises the situation in just one post and conveys a bleak analysis.

If I look back at what I’ve written in previous years, I feel like I’ve already covered everything I could say about 2018. Hell, I’ve already written about the whole notion of the “zombie idea” in ed-tech – that bad ideas never seem to go away, that just get rebranded and repackaged. I’ve written about misinformation and ed-tech (and ed-tech as misinformation). I’ve written about the innovation gospel that makes people pitch dangerously bad ideas like “Uber for education” or “Alexa for babysitting.” I’ve written about the tech industry’s attempts to reshape the school system as its personal job training provider. I’ve written about the promise to “rethink the transcript” and to “revolutionize credentialing.” I’ve written about outsourcing and online education. I’ve written about coding bootcamps as the “new” for-profit higher ed, with all the exploitation that entails. I’ve written about the dangers of data collection and data analysis, about the loss of privacy and the lack of security.

We have all been dazzled by the narrative of transforming education through technology but I think more and more educators are becoming more wary about the technology we use. There are much more pressing issues facing schools and universities than the purchase of every new gadget and device that hits the market and above all we have to reconsider very seriously the systems we use and who can access and exploit the data created by our students. 

Watters' post is not easy reading and contains many home truths. Her role of critically reviewing the field of educational technology has irritated many and the consequent criticism has understandably taken its toll. Critical thinking is surely a central element of academic practice but it takes a lot of courage to question ideas that sound as attractive and exciting as those offered by the edtech industry. Her conclusion is sadly to move on to other projects and reflects in resignation:

This is the ninth year that I’ve reviewed the stories we’re being told about education technology. Typically, this has been a ten (or more) part series. But I just can’t do it any more. Some people think it’s hilarious that I’m ed-tech’s Cassandra, but it’s not funny at all. It’s depressing, and it’s painful. And no one fucking listens.

Many of us do listen and we also need someone to voice our fears in a balanced and credible manner. But it is unreasonable to leave this to just one person so I can only thank her for many thoughtful and investigative posts over the years and the best of luck with new ventures. I suspect however that the blog will continue.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Sharing MOOC resources - whatever happened to open?

CC0 Public domain on Max Pixel
Several years ago there were strong connections between MOOCs and the field of open educational resources (OER). By using OERs you could design open courses that could be offered to large groups of learners - and so the MOOC was born. However, the relationship between the two concepts has become rather complex in recent years, especially since most of the content in MOOCs is anything but open. Indeed, the whole idea of the word open has become elastic.

An example of this is an interesting article in Inside Higher Ed, How MOOC Collaboration Could Aid On-Campus Teaching and Learning. It discusses the problem that most MOOC content is locked into the various MOOC platforms and cannot be reused, not even by the members of the consortium. It seems that not even the institutions within EdX, Coursera or other consortia are able to access each other's course material and this means that some extremely valuable and costly educational resources are locked down. The article looks at a current initiative within Open EdX to share resources among partner institutions and thereby allowing for some level of reuse, especially in regular campus courses.

Sharing MOOC content among partner institutions for the purposes of residential instruction could substantially increase the value-add of participating in a MOOC consortium. The challenges to MOOC providers involve unbundling content from course models, providing interoperability pathways between MOOCs and residential learning management systems, and formulating governance for sharing as more initiatives move toward sustainable -- for-pay and/or for-credit -- models.

Being able to share resources with other member institutions in what is labelled a collaboration economy sounds like an obvious and attractive benefit of belonging to a MOOC consortium. The difficulty at present is being able to search effectively within the platform and easily add content directly into your learning management system. A project at Harvard University DART: Digital Assets for Reuse in Teaching, aims at integrating the university's MOOC content with their LMS, Canvas, and providing effective search and recommendation services. This is so far restricted to using the university's own MOOC resources in their own regular programmes, something that I had assumed was already normal practice. The concept of sharing within a consortium is seen as the next big step but presumably with a price tag.

As edX and other MOOC providers continue to chart paths to paid, for-credit courses, it is an opportune time to more boldly reimagine the benefits participating in a MOOC consortium brings. Institutions of higher education are beginning to more deeply strategize about how they view the digital learning landscape. And at a time when so many institutions have committed to open online courses, it’s natural to ask how these materials can be used to explore new pathways in both existing and nascent learning settings.

At the same time the solutions proposed in the article would be irrelevant if everyone simply put a Creative Commons license on all the material and shared it openly. But since many high profile institutions have invested heavily in their MOOCs, they are wary of simply opening up to the world and want to protect their investment to a certain extent by restricting the openness to consortium members. But is sad to see that the MOOC movement, built on the concept of openness, has resulted in silos of locked content that may in the future be unlocked to those willing to pay for membership. I really thought the whole idea was to share expertise and make education available to everyone.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

When learning gets real

Photo by Headway on Unsplash
Student assignments (essays, group work, reports) are all too often written for an audience of one, namely the teacher, and for the sole purpose of providing a basis for grading. The student will adjust the effort according to the weight of the assignment (number of credits available) and try to meet that particular teacher's criteria. The idea that anyone else might benefit from the assignment or that it should have some real impact outside the confines of the classroom is seldom considered. However, the assignment can be transformed by making it public or better still aimed at a wider audience which can benefit from the findings. Learning can be transformed when the audience is expanded and the results can make a difference. In addition, most employers are looking for evidence of practical experience so let's make sure that assignments are as real as possible.

This is nothing new of course but the potential was reinforced for me during a seminar I attended in Beirut, Lebanon, this week, Skills needed for the twenty first century and their impact on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.The afternoon session featured interesting examples of how learning is enhanced when a course becomes a stage and the results of the students' work benefit a wide and even global audience. Several speakers described how business simulations generate high levels of student engagement and provide a realistic setting for developing decision-making and teamwork skills. This is combined with teaching and plenty of feedback and tutorials from the teachers. Simulations do indeed generate a high level of student commitment but the bar can be raised even higher when you move from simulated activities to real problems in real organisations and let the students interact with professionals in their field. Two examples in particular stood out for me.

Corporate virtual mobility
One way of raising the bar for students is allowing them to do projects for companies and thus develop their skills, gain work experience and learn to collaborate online and meet real deadlines. A great example of university-industry collaboration was from Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK). They had first linked business students with an international company that was interested in breaking into the Middle East market. The students spent 2 months working as marketing consultants for the company, under the supervision of their teachers and were constantly in contact with company representatives. The final product was a marketing survey that was of great practical use for the company whilst the students had been able to put their theoretical knowledge into practice and also gained practical work experience for their CVs. The success of this venture lead to the university linking up with the Spanish-based academic business network, Telanto. Telanto links companies who have problems to solve (challenges) with suitable university classes who can try to find a solution to these challenges. Students work intensively with the company to solve the challenge and the result is beneficial to both sides. In the case of USEK, several students were asked to join an internship programme with the company or even offered full-time employment on graduation. This is a further example of virtual mobility but this time the mobility is with a company rather than a university. Experience of working in virtual international teams to solve problems is extremely attractive in today's job market and I think we will see many more ventures like this in the future.
See slideshow: Teaching Through Real Cases in Collaboration with the Industry, Tina Habib (USEK)

International film festival
Notre Dame University (NDU) in Beirut organises each year an international film festival featuring short films from young film makers under the theme The power of youth. The festival has an impressive international reputation and attracts a wide audience but the most interesting aspect is how the festival is so well integrated into the academic work of the university with students of many disciplines helping to plan, produce and run it. Film students get the chance of international exposure and students from other disciplines are able to get hands-on work experience collaborating with professionals and working to strict deadlines. Workshops and master classes are run by professional film makers as part of the curriculum. Organising the festival is an all-year activity and students are able to weave their way between theory in class and practice in the festival, often working in multi-disciplinary and international teams. See the slideshow: On the ground. The case of NDU International Film Festival, Nicolas Khabbaz (NDU).

Linking theory with real-life practice and solving real problems take learning to a new level. If you then add elements of internationalisation, virtual mobility, problem-solving and collaboration into the mix, the experience becomes so much richer than in a traditional academic setting. Student engagement levels were much higher since they could see that their efforts really made a difference and there was a genuine sense of pride at contributing to a final product that gained public approval.

See all the slideshows from this seminar (including mine!).