Saturday, December 14, 2019

Smart campus, but who owns the smartness?

Learning analytics allows sophisticated analysis of students' activity in the university's various platforms and tools, allowing teachers and administrators to see who is falling behind, what they are having problems with and what types of activities give the best results. At the same time the campus is becoming smarter with the use of IoT (internet of things) technology and facial recognition, allowing automatic attendance registration, smart monitoring of room occupancy, car parks, heating control and even rubbish bins. Add artificial intelligence into this mix and we have the smart campus of tomorrow.

An example of the smart campus movement is Arizona State University, described in an article in EdTech magazine, How Arizona State University Built a Smart Campus. They have developed a campus app that has become almost default for students and staff allowing them to check schedules, grades, exam times, services, cafeteria menus, parking options, room availability and so on. Buildings and other spaces are constantly monitored and data collected about occupation and movement. This enables more efficient use of energy and provides vital data for planning new facilities and changes to existing ones. Major IT companies are pitching sophisticated solutions for campus management as seen in this film.

It's all extremely impressive but I have a couple of reservations.

Firstly, although the smart campus is very convenient and gives students and staff personalised and attractive services at their fingertips, you get the feeling that your every move is registered and stored. If all the data is aggregated all my movements, activities, purchases, studies, test results, hours spent in different spaces and travel will be available for possible analysis. Examples of facial recognition and ubiquitous CCTV monitoring seen in some Chinese schools and colleges in recent months can mean that there is simply nowhere to hide on campus. Your mobile is both the key to all campus facilities and a tracking device. The university therefore has extremely detailed data on everyone on campus and it is virtually impossible to opt out or even switch off. If that data is in the hands of a third party what guarantees are there that they will not sell that data or find ways of profiting from it? There are of course enormous advantages in smart campus solutions but questions about the use of personal data and informed consent must be foremost.

My second reservation is the focus on the physical campus and what sort of smart services all the off-campus online students will be able to access. These students are seldom mentioned in the smart campus narrative and I would like to see new learning spaces that bridge the gap between traditional campus students and online students. There seem to be few limits on the level of investment in the physical campus whilst the online spaces are in comparison extremely low-budget operations.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Toolkits for active learning

There are so many choices of educational methods and tools that it's easy to feel a bit paralysed when faced with selecting the right ones for a particular lesson. That's why curated toolkits and practical guides are always so appreciated especially if they make it easier to find the right method or tool for what you want to achieve in a particular class activity.

One such useful guide is the Dynamic Toolkit developed by the Erasmus+ project eLene4Life. This is a compilation of activities that promote active and collaborative learning that can be applied in different settings: in the classroom, outdoors, online or a blended approach. The activities develop a variety of transversal soft skills: digital, methodological, social and personal.

The DT (Dynamic Toolkit) is designed to support the acquisition of transversal skills using innovative teaching methodologies. It is addressed to educators across Europe, to support them in the process of designing their classes/lectures aimed at fostering acquisition of transversal skills by their students (mainly in large classes).

You can use a variety of criteria to search for a method and there are then clear instructions and ideas for implementation as well as reference material and links to similar or related methods. Some involve digital tools but many are simply about organising classroom activities. The key to them all is promoting active learning. Also included is a guide to digital tools used in active learning.

Active learning refers to a broad range of teaching strategies which engage students or trainees as active participants in their learning. Typically, these strategies involve learners working together during class, but may also involve individual work and/or reflection, as well as group work outside the classroom. The focus is on how to learn rather than what to learn, placing the learner at the heart of the process. Active learning can be on a spectrum of learner and teacher control of the learning process and learning environment.

I also discovered a similar tookit developed by the University of Copenhagen and partners. This has a similar search function and the methods have clear descriptions, instructions and references as well as links to related resources in the toolkit.

Guides like these save so much time and frustration for many teachers who would otherwise never stumble upon these tools and methods. Knowing that other teachers have tried and tested them makes experimenting with more creative teaching methods less of a stressful leap in the dark.

Another toolkit you might want to check is a guide to digital tools for collaboration called Smarter Collaboration that I am responsible for at my university. Here you will find a wide range of collaborative tools arranged under functional categories such as collaborative writing, screencasting, mindmapping, planning, presenting and many more.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Headsets - not pretty but best for audio quality

Many web meetings and webinars are spoiled by poor sound quality. The volume level fluctuates, background noise interferes and the sound quality varies. Often this is due to the unstable nature of wireless connections, but generally the problem is caused by headsets or the lack of them. A post by Ken Molay on his Webinar Blog, The Perfect Webcam Headset Doesn't Exist, outlines the main problems. The in-built microphones can offer good sound quality (I've heard some good examples of this) but more often than not they offer a metallic sound and require the speaker to speak directly into the laptop without moving around. Another drawback of the in-built microphone is that if you try to type it sounds like an elephant practicing tap-dancing. I often use a desktop microphone (Jabra Speak) and this offers very good quality but not if you move around a lot or start typing of doing anything on the actual desktop. The in-built microphones in webcams are usually the worst possible choice, though in my experience the computer often chooses this as the default microphone so it's a good idea to always check before starting a web meeting.

 Bluetooth earpieces with microphone would seem an ideal option but there are drawbacks even here.

Wireless devices lose power, lose pairing, and catch interference from other signals. Bluetooth is susceptible to transmission lag that can mess up audio/video synchronization or make smooth two-way conversation difficult.

So the best option seems to be the good old wired headset, preferably with a USB connection.

A headset is the optimal way to get near-field clarity and consistent volume, since it stays in place at the same distance from the mouth no matter what the presenter does.

The trouble is that headsets aren't particularly flattering fashion accessories and are not particularly comfortable either. I use a big clunky Logitech headset that works well but it would be nice to have something less conspicuous. Most people would rather not use one at all and this is evident in many meetings and webinars I am involved in. Ken Molay concludes that there is still no headset that ticks all the boxes: light, comfortable and almost invisible. The best bet is the ultra thin boom microphones often used by conference speakers but no manufacturer has produced one with an earpiece speaker. Ken offers a nice specification for manufacturers to deliver. I hope it comes along soon for the sake of better web communication.

My ideal, "optimal" headset for use while on a video webcast would be a thin whip boom earhook microphone, connected to the USB port of my computer, with an integrated low-profile earpiece. The whole thing should be available in two or three colors to get closer to a range of human skin tones. It needs a minimum six-foot (two-meter) cable. And it should be optimized for USB low-power operating voltage and human speech frequency range.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Developing digital professionalism - let's be careful out there!

Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash
I like the term digital professionalism used by Bernadette John in an article on JISC, "We’re sleepwalking into a surveillance society with the tech in our pockets". She raises concerns that we are often unwittingly sharing sensitive information due to the fact that the apps on our mobiles and tablets are uploading our photos and conversations to cloud servers without our knowledge. Even images shared over encrypted apps like Whatsapp are then shared automatically to Apple's iCloud making them potentially available for public view. Basically we all need to spend time understanding and trying to tame the powerful forces working around the clock on our mobile devices.

People are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. They're not aware of what their obligations are with regards to the tech in their pockets, they're just using it for work without mindfully considering what the risks and benefits are and making a balanced and informed decision about it.

She gives examples of doctors sharing patient information with colleagues on encrypted services, unaware that other apps are copying the images and saving them to publicly accessible cloud services. For example, all photos I take on my mobile are automatically uploaded to iCloud and Google Photos and so even a private photo that I do not share on any social media are visible elsewhere. If you are aware of that you can be careful what you photograph, but if you don't realise this you risk sensitive photos becoming public. Our mobile apps often have the ability to store and send tracking data, conversations, e-mails and other actions - we have of course accepted this by clicking OK in the terms and conditions. We simply haven't fully grasped the sometimes treacherous power of the devices we hold so precious.

This isn't a generation issue. We all need to become more responsible users even if it means moving from cool but "leaky" platforms and apps to less cool but more secure alternatives. 

We need to actively train students in what we expect of them with regard to how they carry themselves on social channels, and to make it explicit. We need to show them scenarios where things haven't worked out well for others, and ask them to explore those scenarios. But we can't do that without also doing it for the staff.

The article ends with a list of digital professionalism dos and don'ts with an overall message of "get smart". Remember that all those devices, platforms and tools are designed to be as sticky and addictive as possible. Check your profiles, security settings, permissions and shut down potential leaks. Think before you share and even when you do, be aware that whatever you share digitally can easily be shared by others. That doesn't mean we have to lock down everything and go completely offline. Sharing is still extremely rewarding and collaboration is essential for learning. But in the words of the sergeant in the wonderful eighties cop series Hill Street Blues - "Let's be careful out there."

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Attention seekers - taking innovation from project to mainstream

There is no shortage of innovative and exciting projects in education full of enthusiasts investigating new ways to enhance learning or widen the horizons of current educational practice. However the challenge of moving from project to mainstream often proves too great and few innovations get a chance to make a real impact on the institution's core activities.This is a source of frustration for all of us who have been working with educational technology but it's worthwhile stepping back a bit and looking at all the other important issues that are competing for the attention of policy makers and management: internationalisation, accessibility, diversity, sustainability, pedagogical development, quality assurance etc. Educational institutions must deliver what is asked of them by their government authorities or owners and if these requirements do not include specific objectives for the issues mentioned above, then those issues will naturally be of secondary importance to the management. If your cause is not on that priority list then your chances of getting noticed are low.

In recent years in Sweden there has been little coherent strategy from the top on the use of educational technology and as a result development has largely been fragmented and responsibility delegated to each institution. Things are changing now with the issue once again on the agenda of the government authorities but for many years it was hard to see real progress. There have been many projects and initiatives but almost always bottom-up and dependent on short-term financing. If bottom-up is not met half way by top-down strategies, commitment and incentives then all that energy just evaporates into thin air.

The struggle to catch the eye of the decision makers was nicely captured in a lecture I attended the other week by Melissa de Wilde from Gent University in Belgium. She is a researcher in educational innovation and described her efforts to promote virtual exchange at her university. Her story was familiar to everyone who has tried to introduce new concepts and perspectives. The challenge of simply getting people's attention is probably the greatest and demands resilience and stubborn persistence to make any kind of headway. Decision makers are the hardest to influence unless your issue can help them tick at least one of the boxes on their to-do list. Teachers can often be interested in your cause, but simply don't have the time or energy to get involved, especially since your cause is just one of many admirable but non-essential ones vying for the attention. Key success factors according to Melissa are simply getting your foot in the door and not withdrawing, getting help from a high status staff member or an external expert (deus ex machina), providing support to those who do engage, making sure to document, measure and analyse the process, creating  opportunities to share experiences and success stories and simply making yourself and your colleagues hard to ignore (creating a buzz).

However, no matter how hard you try, nothing helps your cause more than it becoming national policy and part of the institution's mission, so you need to address the policy makers as well as the grassroots. If we can join forces with other causes vying for attention and show that you can tick several boxes in one go then the chances of mainstream adoption must be high. Digitalisation can for example help to build sustainability (reduced air travel, paper use), promote internationalisation (virtual exchange, online collaboration), widen access to education (online courses), enhance inclusion (digital tools for text-speech-text, translation, sub-titles) and pedagogical development (open pedagogy, online courses, collaborative learning, best practice dissemination). If we have to compete for attention we will not get very far. Joining forces must be the answer.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The future of student mobility is digital - whether we like it or not

I have spent the past week contributing to an international staff training week on virtual exchange at the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice, southern Poland. I was responsible for several workshops and presentation sessions on subjects like tools for digital collaboration, webinars and the open online course for teachers that I help to run, Open Networked Learning. It was a truly global gathering and our common interest was widening international collaboration between students and teachers by using digital platforms and tools. Integrating internationalisation in the curriculum has been common in language teaching for many years but today’s online collaboration goes far beyond the level of simply linking up with colleagues abroad using Skype. Using synchronous and especially asynchronous platforms students can collaborate on common projects in practically any field, teachers can develop common online courses and students can even work for international companies through virtual internships. The participants were all enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by virtual exchange and many different projects and approaches were presented and discussed.

This part of Poland, Upper Silesia, and surrounding cities like Katowice, Chorzów and Zabrze are synonymous to many people with heavy industry such as coal, iron and steel and the resultant pollution. In recent years, however, most of the mines and factories have closed and this has led to a massive restructuring of the economy, moving from industry to services. The cities are changing as the old industrial landscape is replaced by modern housing, offices shopping malls and motorways. In many cases industrial buildings are converted and repurposed and many of the impressive new public buildings have elements of the past heritage, such as the use of local bricks. Some industrial areas have been converted into parks or wetlands and slowly the region is emerging from the polluted industrial past. During the week, we were taken on a tour down an old coal mine, a visit that made me ashamed to ever complain about my own work having seen the conditions that the miners have had to work in. This process of totally overhauling the regional economy is painful and far from complete but the change has been essential. Our conference in some way reflected this in that we are facing a radical shift in how we work with internationalisation.

With the background of the urgency to reduce carbon emissions, especially through air travel, it would seem logical that virtual exchange/mobility is clearly the way forward in terms of international cooperation in higher education. However, this week made me realise that the field is still in its infancy compared to the efforts universities put into physical mobility programmes. Even if my colleagues this week were all enthusiastic about the potential of online collaboration and were trying hard to influence colleagues at their respective institutions, it seemed to me that physical mobility is still the default option, even if an average of around 5% of all students ever get the opportunity to study abroad. Even without the climate crisis, the arguments for investing in virtual exchange activities would seem to be convincing. Online collaboration enables all students to learn how to work in international and multi-cultural teams, a skill that is highly valued in the labour market. It also promotes accessibility since students with restricted mobility are able to participate in international activities on equal terms. If we genuinely believe that students benefit from meeting and working with students from other countries and with other perspectives then the only way to enable this for all of them is by using online platforms and tools.

The elephant in the room however is the realistic prospect that we may soon have to drastically cut or even stop our use of air travel and physical meetings and conferences will become rare or unfeasible. Even those who are working with virtual exchange are still flying to meetings and conferences and the desired outcome of many projects is a physical exchange at some point. This is a very hard pill to swallow and although I have been trying hard to avoid air travel for the past few months it still hurts; especially those extremely long train trips through Europe with hectic platform changes and bags to carry. However, I suspect that the pressure to reduce the carbon footprint of higher education will increase rapidly in the coming year and no matter how exciting it is to travel and meet each other in person, we will simply have to find other ways. I am very glad, however, that I was able to attend this event and meet other enthusiasts who see great potential in virtual exchange.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

MOOCs on campus

Even if the concept of a MOOC is now so blurred and diverse that the acronym has become almost redundant, new twists to the story keep emerging. Instead of challenging the traditional education system as originally proclaimed, the main MOOC platforms are now becoming increasingly mainstream focusing on complementing the traditional system and gaining a foothold in the corporate training market. The news that Coursera are now offering a concept called Coursera for campus seems to represent the closing of the circle as MOOCs become part of the traditional campus set-up.

The idea is that a university can sign up and gain access to Coursera's library of over 3,600 courses and then integrate them into the curriculum. The MOOCs can be used as course modules or complementary material and they can be integrated into the institution's learning management system, allowing teachers to add their own assignments and course material to the MOOC. The institution can then add examination and award credits for the MOOC. The ability to use a MOOC as a kind of multimedia course book and then add on-site seminars, assignments and assessment is very attractive though of course it comes at a price and is far from the notion of MOOCs as examples of open educational resources. A Spotify for MOOCs basically.

The advantages to the institution are several. Courses and teachers from high profile universities can be integrated into the curriculum and then local support and adaptation to local circumstances can be included as added value. I like this idea and have previously posted about examples of this in more open varieties of MOOCs. The Coursera MOOCs can even be offered as lifelong learning options to a wider learner community, also with added local focus or even with support in the local language (I haven't seen examples of this yet but it would certainly be extremely useful). Institutions can also use the Coursera library to offer a wider choice of optional courses to their students. Customers have also access to Coursera's learning analytics tools to track student engagement and completion rates, though on the other hand this also gives Coursera access to your student data, thus increasing the already vast amount of student data they can process.

If this development means that universities and colleges can widen their curriculum and offer course material from high status universities but at the same time offering extra tuition in the local language, discussing how to apply the course topics to local circumstances, then I like the idea. It's a long way from the original concept of a MOOC and much more about a traditional content delivery concept but if there is the flexibility to add local relevance then it will be interesting to see how it develops. The main concern for me is who owns all the data and how will it be used.

Here's a publicity film from Coursera about their campus solution for Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Organising a digital conference

Post-conference organisers' meeting (CC BY Markus Schneider)
If we are serious about limiting our carbon footprint in the education sector we have to develop formats for online conferences to at least partly replace the flora of on-site conferences. The technology is available but we have to overcome many preconceptions about online meetings and dare to experiment. Over the past months I have been part of a team from both the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) and the Swedish Network for IT in Higher Education (ITHU) arranging a national digital conference on teaching and learning in higher education with a focus on digitalisation. Finally last week, 27 September, the conference was held with a total of over 500 participants from all over the country and several from abroad. Most of the registered participants attended; some attended all the sessions whilst others chose the sessions that were most relevant for them. At most we had over 350 people simultaneously and nearly all sessions had at least 50 participants. The conference was a great success and the technology worked perfectly all the way. The most important fact was that we showed that a digital conference of this dignity can be organised and can include social events and the chance to network, just like an on-site conference. It was so much more than a string of streamed presentations. We wanted to create the feel of a conference with a reception area, social breaks, online lunch and plenty of interaction in the sessions including many small group discussions.

The main aim of the conference was for the authority to inform and stimulate discussion about current national initiatives in the field of quality in teaching and learning. Normally this type of activity would be held in Stockholm and this naturally limits participation of those who have furthest to travel or have limited budgets.A digital conference is therefore more inclusive and saves a considerable amount of money that would otherwise be spent on the conference venue and catering as well as all the flights, train travel and hotel nights. the participants came from almost all the higher education institutions in Sweden as well as representatives from other educational sectors such as schools, learning centres and adult education. We also had many representatives from other government authorities who were mostly interested in seeing how a virtual conference could be organised.

Conference structure and technical set-up
On the technical side the conference used the e-meeting tool Zoom which all Swedish universities have access to and is familiar to many of the participants. You can see the conference programme on the conference site (in Swedish, but use a translation tool and it should be understandable). We decided to use Zoom's webinar room for for the plenary sessions since it can handle large numbers of participants. Here the participants are unable to activate their microphones and webcams and can only communicate by chat. This keeps the interface "clean" and puts the focus on the speakers. It also eliminates the risk of an unmuted microphone creating background noise. However all plenary sessions featured polls in the tool Mentimeter or encouraged questions and reflections in the chat, both of which proved extremely popular.

For the parallel sessions we used Zoom's large group rooms and here the particpants could be seen and heard and this enable a much freer discussion. These sessions involved between 50 and 150 participants and many involved small group discussions in breakout groups of 4-6. this also worked well and enabled participants to meet new colleagues. We devoted considerable planning time to testing various options and even carried out a stress test to see if there were any limitations when a room had hundreds of participants. We also documented all sorts of rules and guidelines for all the speakers, moderators, chat moderators, hosts and technical support staff and in many cases we had alternative plans if anything went wrong. This meticulous planning was the foundation of the conference's success and some of my colleagues worked extremely hard to cover all eventualities.

Social activities
We aimed to make all the sessions as interactive as possible but decided to experiment a little by also arranging the sort of social opportunities that make on-site conferences so valuable. Before the conference started we offered a mingle meeting in our reception/helpdesk room. This room was manned all through the conference to answer questions or help people set up their audio and video but in the early morning it was a drop-in mingle. I hosted this and was amazed that more than 70 people logged in from around 08:00 am just to say hello and test things. We allowed all to use their webcams and microphones and it was nice to have some small talk before we all moved to the main webinar room for the opening plenary. At lunch we offered a wide selection of rooms where you could simply eat your lunch with random colleagues from around the country. However the most interesting lunchtime activities were the rooms that featured mindfulness, yoga and even a German conversation course. We weren't sure anyone would dare to participate in these but they were all well attended and received plenty of positive feedback.

Feedback and reflections
After the dust had settled, all the organising team had a euphoric after-work session (online of course!). The relief that everything had worked beyond our wildest dreams was almost tangible and we all agreed that this experience will lead the way towards many more such ventures. The feedback from the participants was overwhelmingly positive and I can't recall any serious issues at all. The most common themes in the feedback were:
  • Inclusion. Many participants wrote that if the conference had been held in Stockholm they would not have attended. This meant that the conference gathered a much wider cross-section of the education sector than a physical conference could have achieved. Many claimed that they felt more active and included in the discussion than at a more traditional conference. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly.
  • Combining conference and work. Many appreciated that they could choose to attend certain sessions and still be able to do their regular tasks in between. It was also easy to drop into a session late without that awkward feeling you have when you walk into a room and make excuses.
  • Networking. Some felt that they had been able to met more people and discuss than at many regular conferences where you listen most of the time and eat lunch with colleagues.
  • Convenience. Even those who could easily have attended an on-site event appreciated the ability to participate without travel.
  • Participation. Some invited colleagues to sit in the same room with them and discuss the issues together. This meant that the conference reached many more participants than those who had registered and hopefully sparked interesting internal discussions. Some even participated on the move from a train or bus.
Finally, on a personal note this event confirmed many of the ideas I have written about in earlier posts about the potential of digital conferences and how we can also include social events and networking activities in an online space. I was part of a committed and creative team and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I have learnt a lot from this and feel now that we have made an important breakthrough. We will still need on-site meetings in the future but we need to make them exceptions rather than the rule. Digital events are not the same experience but they can be equally if not more stimulating and enjoyable.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

How dare you! What future do we offer our children?

This short speech by Greta Thunberg at the United Nations climate summit this week has shaken me. I've been increasingly depressed by how the world's leaders and decision makers continue to pay no more than lip service (at best) to the urgent demands from scientists and experts for concrete action to prevent the disastrous effects of massive climate change. But this short speech spells out the message better than any scientific report. We're in danger of triggering a disastrous and irreversible process and those who can actually do something about the situation continue with a message of business as usual, in some cases denying that the problem even exists. At the same time, the scientific facts were made even clearer as the IPCC published its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, outlining the potentially disastrous effects of global warming to the marine environment with severe flooding, collapse of fishing and increase in severe weather phenomena. The message couldn't be clearer.

Greta points the finger not only at world leaders but also at all of us. We have all contributed to the mess and it's our responsibility to do everything we can to avert disaster. We talk so often about our children's future but now when the children are begging us to offer them a future the world seems suddenly paralysed. The solutions are there, the science and technology are available but the will to change is absent. Yes, there are millions protesting and many are trying to adjust our lifestyles, but the majority are simply continuing as normal, assuming that it will somehow work out well in the end. In all disaster movies, no-one listens to the lone scientist who warns of the impending danger. The mayor insists that the show must go on and scoffs at the idea of a giant shark/mutant piranhas/monsters/aliens coming to spoil the festivities. Sounds familiar today doesn't it? In the movies the lone scientist manages to save the day at the last minute, but I'm not sure this is a realistic scenario.

I have made some changes to my lifestyle in the last couple of years but admit that they are mostly cosmetic. Like most people, I'm still leading a comfortable lifestyle and following ingrained habits. I have often questioned whether not flying or eating less meat will make the slightest difference to the situation. The airports and planes are still packed, new massive shopping malls are opened every day, the annual consumer feeding frenzy of Christmas is already under way and the world's forests are disappearing rapidly. We seem to be consuming ourselves to extinction.

The role of education is absolutely vital to make people aware of climate issues and many educators are already making valuable contributions. But this is a global issue and needs international coordination. A major obstacle is the countries who actively discourage discussion of environmental issues even in schools or suppress any movement that may question or threaten the government's control. Even in the richest nations science and education are under threat since the solutions to the climate crisis threaten the profits and even existence of massive multinational corporations. The backlash we are seeing just now is savage and therefore it is essential that everyone in the education field is conspicuous and active in the public debate (where such action is allowed). Educators and scientists must react publicly to provide facts to debunk the conspiracy theorists and deniers. But we can't do this alone, we need political support. The saddest part of all this is that I see very few political leaders who are willing to step forward seriously and this is the core of Greta's message. She has power to influence but we need bold politicians who can do the real work. I can't see anyone willing to take the lead at the moment.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Digital by default - who is excluded?

I like to think that I am fairly comfortable with digital tools and platforms, but I feel a backlash growing inside me when the digital option is pushed into my face. Here in Sweden for example, cash has become almost obsolete, there's an app for everything and shops are becoming increasingly self-service. When a shop forces you to use those awful self-service checkouts, or you can only pay for parking by downloading the special app (that I as a visitor to the town will probably never use again), or when you arrive in a new city and are faced with the challenge of negotiating the often complex automatic ticket machines (offering you a myriad of options but never the one you are looking for). The hours I have wasted on such frustrating processes that an old-fashioned human contact would have solved in seconds.

I sometimes feel I'm the only one who feels like this, but received welcome support from a post by James Clay, Digital should be a choice… The new digital solution may be welcomed by many but we also need to consider who we are excluding by installing even more self-service machines or apps. Offer us a choice and we can maybe accept the change in time, but if there is no choice people will suffer.

We often forget that sometimes people don’t like innovation and innovation doesn’t automatically always mean better. Actually most of the time innovation for a lot of people is rarely better. Sometimes its worse than what was before, most of the time it’s just different.

I simply don't want to install new apps every week that clog up my mobile's limited capacity and that I only use a handful of times a year at most. Most buses are now cashless and if you don't use the app or have a prepaid card you are punished by paying a high price for a single ticket from A to B. In many self-service shops there is a forest of machines and one manual checkout with a long queue (curious isn't it?). At one railway station with only self-service ticket machines I saw several members of staff who spent all their time helping bewildered travellers to use the machines!

James Clay applies this to education where an increasing amount of services on campus are being migrated to kiosks or chatbots. What about students or staff who for some reason can't or don't wish to go digital in this way. Is there any real person I can ask? What do I do if I don't have a mobile that supports the latest app? Some tech companies have rationalised all traces of personal contact from their customer service, replacing it with vast FAQ pages and self-help discussion forums. Sometimes I have a problem that isn't covered there or I'm not prepared to spend the next two hours combing through the site to find an answer. I just want a quick answer. Of course I can check in myself at a hotel and do everything by app but I do like to meet a person who smiles and can answer my questions (no, I don't want a humanoid robot at the desk either, no matter how polite they may be).

Digital by default means making the first option digital, but there needs to be a second option, one that may require the use of people to deliver the service.

Whenever we innovate we need to consider whether we are excluding anyone and ensure that we have an option for them. 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The illusion of learning - from lectures to active learning

If you look back to your school and university days you sometimes realise that the demanding and tough teachers you disliked so much at the time actually taught you more than the ones you liked. Activities that were challenging and uncomfortable at the time were with hindsight much greater learning experiences than more orthodox classroom methods. In short, we are not very good at recognising a learning experience. This puts into question the validity of student course evaluations where challenging teachers and activities are often given low scores.

This discrepancy is studied in an article in the Harvard gazette, Study shows students in ‘active learning’ classrooms learn more than they think. Many studies show that students appreciate lectures and see them as valuable learning experiences whereas they are often more skeptical to active, collaborative learning. The Harvard study compared student attitudes to traditional lectures with active learning classrooms and showed that although the students rated the lectures more highly, the test results showed that they actually learned more by active learning. A well-structured and professional lecture can be very enjoyable and create the illusion that you have learned a lot. But, of course, the learning happens when you start grappling with the issues yourself and with colleagues. The collaborative element is less clear-cut than the crisp lecture format and involves messy problem-solving and negotiation. We may not realise how much we have learned till much later. According to the lead author of the study, Louis Deslauriers:

“Deep learning is hard work. The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning,” he said. “On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are.”

The lecture is still a symbol of higher education and in popular culture any reference to universities inevitably shows a lecture hall filled with students eagerly making notes on the professor's lecture. Students still expect university to be like this and are often disappointed if they don't have any lectures on a course. A good lecture can indeed act as an inspiration and a starting point for investigation but it is in the messy process of negotiation, meaning-making and problem-solving that the real learning takes place.

... the study shows that it’s important to ensure that neither instructors nor students are fooled into thinking that lectures are the best learning option. “Students might give fabulous evaluations to an amazing lecturer based on this feeling of learning, even though their actual learning isn’t optimal,” he said. “This could help to explain why study after study shows that student evaluations seem to be completely uncorrelated with actual learning.”

The key lies in helping students realise the value of active learning by explaining the process and introducing the methods step by step. At the same time it is a major step in the dark for many teachers who are justly proud of their ability to lecture and get excellent evaluations from doing so. Why change a winning formula that the students clearly appreciate? There's a chain reaction here where teachers need support to adapt to a new teaching method and the students in turn need support to adapt and learn to appreciate the new method.

Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom
Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, Greg Kestin
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2019, 201821936; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1821936116

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Online learning - unplugged

How can digital educational resources benefit those without internet access (about 3.2 billion people according to Internet World Stats) or even without electricity? Open educational resources (OER) are available in hundreds of languages but they don't help those who cannot access that material. The real potential of online education is making it accessible for all - even offline.

There are many examples of this around the world where online material is downloaded where bandwidth is available and then used offline in remote regions, but one particularly interesting example I found is described in an article in Campus Technology, Distance Learning Without Computers, It describes a project called Education for Humanity run by Arizona State University in collaboration with a number of humanitarian agencies where online higher education is offered to students in refugee camps in Uganda. These camps often lack both electricity and internet access so the solution involves a device called a Solar Powered Educational Learning Library (SolarSPELL - see film below). This device stores downloaded educational resources from the university (or any other source) and uses the open source learning management system, Moodle, for course delivery. It is powered by solar energy and can support up to 17 mobile devices on its local wifi network. The device is cheap and portable and has been used in many projects around the world including this one in Uganda. The solution allows students to access material, interact and navigate an online course in the same way as they would with internet access. Where possible, online interaction can take place using mobile devices and Whatsapp.

There are some interesting conclusions to this project. Firstly, students who studied ASU's course on agribusiness performed much better than average with some getting extremely high grades. Motivation was of course extremely high since the students all depended on agricultural business and had immediate practical use for what they learned. Being able to immediately test what you have learned in real life situations contributes enormously to completion rates.

Another valuable result of the project was that they developed their digital literacy skills, despite being unplugged. The offline environment was as close to the online version as possible and this gave them confidence for the future.The students clearly saw the benefits and motivation rose accordingly.

Besides the improvements in students' marketing and financial analysis skills, an unexpected outcome was a boost in digital literacy, Bauer noted. "Although the facilitators were actually in charge of powering up the boxes and being in charge of the technology, they really gave students the option to learn how it works, why it works that way and how the WiFi [in SolarSPELL] was different from the one that they may use to access the internet. We saw their confidence in their digital literacy levels improve, in terms of feeling comfortable in working with technology. And the facilitators were telling us about how excited students were to come in every day.

Because of the limited number of devices that can share the local wifi capacity, many students had to share a laptop or tablet. This proved to be beneficial because it added an element of collaboration that would have been lost if there had been one device per student.

One area of particular interest is the way people who were forced to share a computing device in the pilot project were also forced to work together. "We'll see what the data says, but it will be interesting to [find out] exactly how that collaboration might have improved grades and helped people's understanding.

In developed countries we often fail to discover the benefits that can arise from relative scarcity of resources. Sharing devices forces students to share their ideas and negotiate a solution to the problems they are trying to solve. This could easily be implemented in more connected classrooms to foster better collaboration skills and mutual support.

The course literature had to be revised and adapted to the local situation and OER was the solution. The publisher of the textbook used for the regular course at ASU did not allow the book to be distributed digitally, so the teachers replaced it with OER which they adapted to match more closely the target group's needs. This is another good example of the vital role that OER can play in widening the reach of education, especially through adaptation.

Maybe another success factor for offline digital education is the absence of distractions, allowing students to concentrate on the task in hand rather than be tempted into checking the latest messages. Even in our always connected world we need to learn how to focus and this can be done by temporarily disconnecting or limiting connectivity. Sharing devices with limited or no internet access could have some benefits. Less is more as they say.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Transitional learning spaces

Most learning takes place outside the classroom. Of course, the opportunity to meet, discuss and practice in a structured setting is extremely important but the real battle to understand and implement new knowledge takes place in informal settings: at home, in the library, discussing in a cafe or during a long walk or run in the park. But a relatively unexploited learning space is the area outside the classroom and the corridors linking the formal learning spaces.

These spaces in between are discussed in an article by Luke McCrone in Wonkhe, Learning in the spaces in between. Valuable interaction often takes places before and after a class between students and between students and teachers, but only if the space provides a comfortable environment for this. The furnishings can invite groups to sit and discuss, use their digital devices or even discuss with an absent colleague by video. Previously dead areas such as corridors can become collaborative spaces if there are comfortable seats, power sockets, tables etc.

Frankly, the availability of this sort of transitional space should be prioritised. It is a relatively low-cost intervention that could be the difference between student interaction and disconnectedness. Kitted out with comfortable furniture and other amenities at the fringe of a lecture theatre, it has proven transformational. A student clarifying misunderstandings with the lecturer, or a chance encounter between two friends reflecting on an exam are examples of some of the active learning behaviours I have observed.

There is no doubt great potential here but no mention is made in the article about digital spaces. In most universities the digital campus is the learning management system, divided into class or course silos, offering very little interaction between students from different courses to meet and discuss. The discussion forums are seldom attractive spaces for more informal discussions since students often feel that anything written there is likely to be observed and assessed. Where are the digital spaces in between? How can we create them? Can we set up bookable digital group rooms so that students can meet with full video, audio, chat and screen-sharing functionality. How about social spaces that can lead to meetings with students from other disciplines but without the risk of meeting spammers and trolls?

Way back in the heyday of Second Life there were universities experimenting with virtual campuses where such chance meetings and group work were possible. Those spaces were generally restricted with only password access. The technology wasn't quite mature enough then, nor were most users, but the next generation of virtual worlds and virtual meeting spaces could lead to a much more interactive and social virtual campus. McCrone's research will be interesting to follow, but we mustn't forget the digital spaces. The campus spaces are used by many students but the digital space is the only one that unites the whole university. We need to build it for the future. 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Open online learning in local face-to-face groups - revisiting P2PU

I love the idea of combining the advantages of open online education with local support and social context? Maybe we have to separate the roles of the course/content providers at the macro level and the teachers/facilitators at the micro level. One way to do this is allowing local groups to take and adapt course material from major providers like universities and then run local on-site study groups to work through that material and add local context. This is already happening using MOOCs with local support in the form of MOOC meet-ups and refugee support initiatives such as Kiron.

Another interesting example that I have recently rediscovered is P2PU (Peer-to-peer university). At first the idea was to allow people to create short open online courses based on collaborative learning and without a strict syllabus. Learners had freedom to investigate and share ideas and in many cases some or all of them even arranged physical meetings at a mutually convenient location. Those physical meetings proved so powerful that they have now become the core of P2PU's activities.

Today, P2PU focuses on fostering local physical study circles and the online element is for the course material. Over the years they have built up a repository of online courses and more are being added. These courses then form the resources for local study circles that meet regularly in libraries or community centres. You can start a local study circle and choose to study one of the existing online courses or create your own online course in the free open source P2PU platform (thus adding it to the common repository). Study circle facilitators can learn how to run a circle by taking part in an online training course and there are also regular training sessions in a number of major cities, mostly in North America and Europe.

P2PU has three core values: peer learning, community and equity, and their mission statement is:

P2PU is a grassroots network of individuals who seek to create an equitable, empowering, and liberating alternative to mainstream higher education.

We work towards this vision by creating and sustaining learning communities in public spaces around the world. As librarians and community organizers, we bring neighborhoods together to learn with one another. As educators, we train facilitators to organize their own networks and we develop/curate open educational resources. As developers and designers, we build open source software tools that support flourishing learning communities. And as learners, we work together to improve upon and disseminate methods and practices for peer learning to flourish.

This model seems to combine open online education with local support and context and allows for study circles to use the online resources in different ways, adapting the concepts to their own situation and discussing in their own language. Today's MOOCs tend to be top-down approaches with a fixed schedule and little room for adaptation at local level. An alternative is to create the courses, leave them open and add facilitator guidance modules to help people start study circles who base their meetings on the online course but where the interaction is mostly face-to-face in a trusted group. By designing MOOCs for local adaptation and delegating responsibility the courses can gain greater impact, increased diversity and higher completion rates. But it also entails giving up control and daring to delegate.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Trends in education - erratic development

List articles are very popular but as soon as you draw up a list you give the impression that it is comprehensive. Any time I have been tempted to make a list of ten golden rules for doing something I realise that there are probably lots of other rules equally or more valid than mine. It's probably best to treat most lists as a basis for discussion and take it from there. One such article that interested me recently is on EdSurge, 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching. The background is very USA-oriented but the points show that development in this field is far from linear. Here's a summary with comments and questions to consider.

More professors are shifting from textbooks to OER.
According to recent US statistics there is a clear rise in the number of university teachers using open educational resources, in particular open text books, in their courses. OER is especially used on introductory courses with 22% of teachers admitting to using them last year, a significant improvement over the past three years (only 8% for 2015-16). The advantages are not simply financial. Of course the students save a lot of money by using open textbooks but the main educational advantage is that the material can be easily updated and also reused and adapted by the teachers and students. A spin-off article on EdSurge, Does OER actually improve learning, concludes however that there is little or no evidence so far that using OER has any significant effects on students' actual learning. For students without internet access from home the use of OER can even be a handicap compared to a print book. However it is not the content that is so important when it comes to learning outcomes, it's what the teacher and students do with that content and how they build on it that really matters. The key must be to make the content as accessible as possible, in multiple formats if necessary, and then work collaboratively and creatively from there.

Flipped classrooms seem to be growing exponentially.
Evidently the volume of published articles on this subject is doubling every 16 months as more and more teachers discover the benefits of using valuable classroom time for active learning rather than content delivery. Old habits like lecturing die hard but all indications are that active classrooms are here to stay. However there is more to flipping the classroom than simply pre-recording your lectures. It's about finding the right mix between synchronous and asynchronous learning spaces and working out what activities fit best in which space.

More professors are looking to experts to help them teach. (Though some resist.).
This change concerns the rise of new professions at universities, in particular instructional designers and educational technologists. A major barrier to the adoption of educational technology has been the teachers' fear that not only do they need to be subject experts they also need to master a bewildering range of technologies. Course design and delivery today must be the result of teamwork where the teachers' subject mastery is complemented by expertise in digital platforms, tools and course design. Once it is clear that the burden of digitalisation is no longer solely on the teachers' shoulders and that support is available, then progress becomes visible.

Another aspect of this not mentioned in the article relates to the use of OER. The practice of using recorded lectures from other institutions is also increasing. In a flipped classroom there's no rule that you have to offer your own pre-recorded lectures. If someone else conveys the same message well and the recording has an open license then why waste time recording your own? This is an excellent way to bring expertise from different sources into your course. maybe even offer a playlist of short lectures from academics from different parts of the world to offer a more global perspective than you ever could on your own?

The classroom isn’t the only place to learn.
It never was really, but today we see more institutions acknowledging the fact by investing in flexible and stimulating learning spaces on campus where collaboration and creativity are in focus. Assessment is moving from the formal exam hall to real-life projects, work experience and simulations. Maybe it's soon time to scrap the term classroom and talk about different types of learning spaces, both physical and digital and how we use these different spaces to facilitate learning.

Colleges are still struggling to find the best fit for online education.
This point seems to conflict with many of the others here but is still valid. Online education is still in its infancy compared to the traditional model and we have only started examining its potential. The problem is that many institutions still view online education as a threat rather than a complement and full mainstream acceptance is still elusive. The power of tradition is extremely strong and there is widespread reluctance to accept new forms as equally valid. Despite the growth of MOOCs, OER, flipped classroom etc there is still a long way to go.

What does it mean to teach an age of information overload and polarization?
In a world where conspiracy theories, spam and fake news are abundant and some sections of society (including governments) openly reject scientific research, the teacher's responsibility weighs more heavily than ever before. But it is not simply about teaching media literacy and fact-checking. That can help of course but curiously if we teach students to question and challenge everything, that tactic might backfire and lead them to believe sources that really do question scientific findings (climate change deniers etc). This is one of the themes of an extremely thought-provoking keynote speech by Danah Boyd at last year's SXSW EDU event, What hath we wrought? That lecture is worth a whole conference of discussion and this post will not even attempt to summarise it. Just watch!

Many interesting threads here but no revolutions really. Educational is changing due to technology but not in a steady progression. Development is erratic and unpredictable. New ideas are constantly being tried and tested. Some are instant successes and are adopted, others fails and disappear from sight whilst some failures are reworked and reappear later in a new and more successful guise. The winds blow in different directions and thus change the landscape, slowly but surely

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Platform literacy - an essential future skill

Photo by Burst from Pexels
The internet is increasingly becoming an arena for surveillance and unauthorised exploitation of users' personal data. We need to raise our awareness of what our favourite platforms and apps are doing with our data and develop strategies to limit the damage. This will mean spreading our risks by using a patchwork of different platforms so that no one platform completely "owns" us. Some really useful platforms and tools will have to be ditched and replaced by something less cool but much safer. Security and integrity must come before convenience and coolness. This discussion has to be tackled in education, both in schools and universities.

This is the theme of a series of articles by Bryan Alexander on EdSurge, Follow Along With a Grad Seminar About Edtech. He describes a course he's running that gets students to discuss and investigate the pros and cons of digital technology in both society and education. Part five of the series interested me the most, Students Size Up Edtech’s Dark Side, focusing on the key problems we face today in terms of digitalisation. They identified three main areas of concern:
  • Tech addiction - social media and gaming are designed to keep us hooked.
  • Digital divides - inequalities in internet access, devices, support, digital literacy etc.
  • Privacy and digital "colonialism" - exploitation of personal data, provoking outrage as a business model, largely western and white corporations dominating the global digital space.
There are no simple answers here, not even complex answers, but we all need to become more aware of what is going on and be able to make mature decisions about which technologies, platforms and tools we should embrace and which we should steer clear of. For educators, it's about striking a balance.

The students hope to infuse an awareness of these issues into their professional practice, driving them to seek to address them through their thoughtful and creative work. Ultimately we remained committed to exploring technology in education—but with a more balanced attitude, greater concerns and a deeper awareness of edtech’s social dimension.

As a footnote to this I have recently installed a privacy app called Jumbo on my mobile devices that alerts me to possible vulnerability in Facebook, Google, Twitter and others. Seems to do the job so far but if anyone knows better please share your thoughts.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Brainstorming works best in silence

A recurring theme on this blog is a plea for more silence in a world drowning in noise. An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review, The case for more silence in meetings, reinforces this when it comes to effective meetings. The main idea is that effective brainstorming and creative thinking that involves all participants is a largely silent activity. This goes against the popular image of creative teams in spontaneous, lively and very vocal discussions in open office environments. The article describes how noisy meetings are influenced by flock behaviour where the opinions of the most vocal members are valued and those of less influential members are either dismissed or are never even voiced due to fear of rejection.

Attendees often hold back in meetings, waiting to hear what others say and what their boss might say out of fear of being perceived as difficult, out of touch, or off the mark. Silence can be a solution to this problem, allowing space for unique knowledge and novel ideas to emerge.

A more effective alternative is to brainstorm in silence and in writing allowing everyone to have their say and ideas are anonymous. It's the same in the classroom where genuinely creative ideas often drown in the noise and groupthink dominates. Really creative thought often happens when we're alone and can concentrate; just think of the good ideas you often come up with at night or on a long journey. The article describes a number of strategies for more creative meetings where the participants don't even need to be in the same space to contribute effectively. In addition the use of asynchronous collaboration spaces allow us to harvest ideas from colleagues at other locations. We simply need to get away from a lot of stereotypes about effective meetings. Maybe we also need to design more office spaces that can offer silence.

While we typically default to traditional approaches to meetings, silence-based approaches present additional options that research shows can yield better results. Leveraging independent brainstorming, the cluster technique, anonymous voting, and written communication will expand leaders’ toolboxes — ultimately making them more effective. While silence certainly shouldn’t replace talk entirely, there are times it may be useful. Silence can even be golden when it comes to promoting meeting success.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Trans Europe express - flightless conference travel

Hamburg Hbf, one of many stops on my travels
Having been responsible for a considerably large carbon footprint due to frequent flights to conferences and project meetings I decided this year to try and cut unnecessary flights from my work schedule. I have travelled by train to two activities in Norway and last week I tried a more ambitious project. I attended both the EDEN 2019 (European Distance and E-learning Network) conference in Bruges, Belgium and a project event and meeting in The Hague, Netherlands and did it all by train. I felt doubly motivated for this since I and a colleague planned to run a workshop at the conference on the challenge of organising engaging, interactive online conferences to minimise the need for air travel. I simply couldn't fly to the conference to run a workshop on that theme! Sadly the workshop did not attract much interest this time but we will try again elsewhere later in the year. You can read the abstract for our workshop in the EDEN 2019 Book of abstracts (p 72).

Changing train in Amersfoort, Netherlands
Some reflections then on my feelings after my first Interrail journey for almost 40 years. The whole journey consisted of 15 trains, two ferries and two rail replacement buses and took a total of three days and two extra overnight stays. Only one train was seriously late and although I missed my planned connection there was a later train I could take. I had planned to get some work done on the journey but to my surprise almost none of the trains had any wifi to offer and several did not even have electricity sockets so once the rather weak battery of my iPhone ran out of juice that was the end of the little connectivity I had. Many hours of just sitting on trains takes its toll and I was very tired after a long day on rails. Changing trains was always quite exciting working out which platform to get to and carrying my bags from one platform to another. I did however make short excursions outside many stations dragging my case on a bit of fast sightseeing, something you certainly can't do at airports. I read a lot, gazed at some beautiful German, Belgian and Dutch countryside and made brief contact with many cities I knew about but had never visited. It was a generally pleasant experience and gave me a sense of distance that you lose completely when flying. It just takes so much time.

My Interrail pass - valid all over Europe
There is no doubt that the explosive increase in international air travel over the last 20 years has had a major effect on global CO2 levels and that we need to reduce this as quickly as possible. Of course this is only one of many factors that are contributing to our environmental crisis but it's one that we can directly change if we only put our minds to it. However, if even a fraction of today's air travellers changed to rail transport then today's railways simply could not cope with the increased demand. Long-distance trains are already full and in most countries there are major capacity issues that need to be fixed immediately. It will take billions of euros to upgrade Europe's railways to meet the massive demand of the future and this investment must happen now, not in ten years or later.

At the same time we need to continue meeting each other to find global solutions to global problems. The need for effective digital meeting spaces is therefore the key to international development and we can certainly replace many physical events with online meetings, as long as we are prepared to test new methods and change our traditional approach. It may not be the same as meeting physically but in today's climate crisis, we simply don't have that alternative, at least not as the default form of meeting.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Educational projects in rural areas - a Nordic perspective

Klaksvik, Faroe Islands (own photo)
Rural areas all over the world are suffering from depopulation as young people leave for the cities to get education and employment. This means that local companies are unable to find qualified staff and in many cases choose to move their operations elsewhere. The public sector has to deliver services on shrinking budgets due to the loss of tax income as the population decreases. It’s a vicious circle but one of the keys to reversing this trend is to provide opportunities for the local population to access education and training without having to move away from home. Those who do leave to go to college or university tend to find work in urban areas and seldom return home. Reversing this trend is a key to economic and community development in rural areas and an obvious enabler for this is the use of technology to offer education to all. Today there is a wealth of online education available, as well as blended courses that allow learners in rural areas to study mostly from home apart from a few campus meetings. Despite this, the brain drain continues apart from a few notable exceptions. These exceptions are extremely interesting of course and the question is why some places have found a sustainable solution for offering higher and further education whilst other places have failed?

This was the question behind a Nordic project (Nordplus project Presence at a Distance) I have been involved in over the past two years and we are now working on our final report (the project group are all members of the NVL Distans network). The project's focus was the question: what are the success factors behind educational initiatives in rural and sparsely populated areas in the Nordic region? We looked at a lot of good practice throughout the region but also investigated cases where local initiatives had disappeared. The key factor behind all the success stories was stable and long-term funding but also a common vision of a sustainable and diverse local economy. The establishment of learning centres was a catalyst for development in many rural areas; acting as a broker to match the needs of local companies and public sector with suitable education from colleges and universities. These centres also act as a hub and meeting place for students, teachers and organisations, offering guidance and support as well as access to technology and learning spaces. Having someone to talk to about the mysteries of online education can make the difference between a student succeeding in their studies or dropping out. Many learners have negative experience of education, especially from school, and so they feel apprehensive about going back to education. It is therefore essential that they feel included and valued in this new educational setting and a combination of support both online from the university and on-site from staff at a learning centre or local library.

In our study, we interviewed representatives from successful distance learning initiatives in all the countries and self-governing areas of the Nordic region with the exception of Greenland.  We saw that many initiatives to set up learning centres in rural areas have failed over the last 15 years and this was nearly always due to a lack of long-term vision on the part of the local authority. Many centres were started with the help of EU funding but once that funding dried up the venture suffocated and died because it was not part of any long-term strategy. Many centres also relied too heavily on the initiatives of a few dedicated enthusiasts with little help from the mainstream organisation and if any of those enthusiasts left there was noone willing or able to take over.

The successful educational initiatives we studied had the following factors in common:
  • Commitment and engagement from all interested parties to a shared vision. A vital element in all successful initiatives was close co-operation between the educational institutions, local authorities and local businesses as well as sustainable long-term financing. Many successful initiatives grew from the needs of local industry for qualified staff and this spurred the local authorities to find a solution. It is also essential that the local or regional authority include access to lifelong learning as a key element in their development strategy. Access to relevant higher and further education is not only an educational priority, it is also integrated with employment and economic development.
  • Local meeting places (learning centres) as hubs for educational activities. This must also be a long-term strategic initiative with qualified staff who work closely with all stakeholders to provide relevant courses and programmes that can be studied with a minimum of travel. Even if most people have internet access at home there is still a need for physical spaces for meetings, support and coordination.
  • Efficient and flexible systems for supporting learners wherever they are and building inclusive learning communities. This is largely the responsibility of the educational institutions and involves course design that is focused on building a supportive learning community for distance students. Too many online courses today are largely self-study and only those with great resilience in terms of digital and study skills can hope to succeed.
  • Incentives for universities to offer decentralised/distance education. We saw many good examples where universities responded to the needs of major companies or regional authorities but it is very difficult for the needs of more sparsely populated areas to result in action. While there are many distance/online courses and programmes available they are lack the scaffolding and course design features that are needed to prevent isolation and drop-out. No Nordic country has an open university whose focus is on lifelong learning and with distance as default. As a result the campus is still core business for our universities and this is unlikely to change unless government funding is provided.
Of course, even if all of these conditions are fulfilled it will not stop young people from wanting to spread their wings and move to the cities in search of education and new horizons. That is only natural. However, there is an urgent need to address the needs of those who already live and work there and want to stay. If the established higher education system is not able to develop lifelong learning then we need to create an institution that focuses on this field.