Friday, May 31, 2019

Multilingual webinars

English may be the language of international communication but it also gives native speakers an unfair advantage in conferences and meetings. Most educational conferences I have attended have been dominated by native English speakers, both in terms of keynote speakers as well as in discussions. Less confident English speakers tend to stay silent in fear of making mistakes or that they will not be understood. This is equally true in webinars where fluent English speakers dominate since it is easy for us to write quick comments and questions in the chat or take the microphone to make a point.

I was therefore very excited to read about a multilingual webinar solution called KUDO in a post on The webinar blog, Kudo Targets Professional Multilingual Webcasts. KUDO offers a web-conferencing tool and builds in simultaneous interpretation into a variety of languages through a network of professional interpreters working from home. This means that you can select which languages you want to offer and pay for the interpreters' work. Participants can simply select the language feed they want and all speech in the session will be interpreted. This also means that all participants can contribute to the discussion in their own language, thus allowing everyone to have their say and opening up the meeting to voices that would normally have remained silent or possibly not even attended. Of course this will come with a price tag but it opens up completely new opportunities for global cooperation when people can contribute in their own languages.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

New models for higher education in rural areas

UHI Inverness campus. CC BY-SA Alastair Creelman
I am currently working in a Swedish project (Nya vägar - information in Swedish) that is investigating new paths to higher education for all who live in rural and sparsely populated areas. The problem today is that people move away from rural areas to study and very seldom return. This means that local businesses find it increasingly hard to find qualified staff and the local authorities also have difficulties finding teachers and health care staff. Even if there are many online courses and degree programmes available from Swedish universities, the range is nowhere near as wide as that offered on campus and so the brain drain continues. Some larger local authorities have set up local campuses or learning centres that try to match the needs of the local private and public sector with the courses and programmes offered by the higher education institutions. They also offer a meeting place as well as support and guidance to students and this has proved crucial to the completion rates of degree programmes. For many small local authorities the ability to access higher education without having to move from home is a simple matter of survival. Without this the population will dwindle and it will be difficult to maintain services. Our project aims to answer the following questions:
  • How can we provide higher education to all, wherever they live? 
  • How can we collaborate to optimize and assure the quality of the individual’s study situation? 
  • What can municipalities and other key actors do to create a local context that favors access to higher education? 
  • What is the role of industry and the public sector (employers)? 
  • What is required from the HE sector to increase access to HE for individuals and groups far from university sites? 
  • How can all actors collaborate to strengthen skills supply and life-long learning throughout the country?
UHI Inverness campus
One university that seems to have come a long way to answering these questions is the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland and this week we paid them a visit to learn more about their unique approach to offering higher and further education to students spread over a large and sparsely populated region. Their development has been impressive and rapid; established in 1992, becoming a higher education institution in 2001 and a full university in 2011. Previously all universities in Scotland were concentrated in a central corridor between Glasgow and Aberdeen with nothing to the north and west; well over half of the country's area. UHI identifies strongly with its region aiming to be “locally based, regional in structure and have national and international reach.” They do this in an original way since the university's physical presence is in the form of a network of 13 colleges and 70 learning centres spread all over a region considerably larger than Belgium. Each college is an autonomous organisation with bilateral agreements with UHI, what they call a collegiate federal model. The teachers and researchers are based at the colleges, each of which has its own specialities and local focus, but the students can study most programmes from their nearest college or even learning centre and all have a personal academic tutor. The university faculties and support units operate horizontally in a matrix organisation. Then there are over 70 learning centres in villages, community centres, supported directly by UHI but fully rooted in the local communities. UHI is also a bilingual university with all information and support available in both English and Gaelic though this does not cover the education provided and although there are many courses in Gaelic, the vast majority of the education provided is in English.

What is particularly interesting about UHI is the fact that so many of its courses are accessible whether you study at college, a learning centre or from home and this enables people to access higher education wherever they live and don't need to leave their community. They proudly claim that students have access to about 30 degree programmes within a 30 mile radius of home (distance to nearest learning centre or partner college). Not all courses are available everywhere but as many as possible. Students work from home and come to their learning centre and local college when necessary. All students have a personal academic tutor, usually based at their nearest college. Most courses have students who study from different locations and the boundaries between campus and distance (whatever that means) seem to have been erased.

The same applies for the teachers who can be based at a college or run their courses from small remote learning centres. We met one such teacher who teaches music and even runs week-long virtual music residencies from her base on the tiny island of Benbecula. The use of digital media is of course central to everything that UHI does. A Cisco video-conferencing system links all nodes in the network and UHI is biggest user of video conferencing in Europe. It is therefore essential for all staff to be proficient in using digital media.

For me the most interesting aspect of the university's work is its Learning and Teaching Academy (LTA) that supports the professional development of all teaching staff with a particular emphasis on the effective use of digital media. An integral part of their strategy is ALPINE (Accredited Learning, Professional development and Innovation in Education), a framework that offers professional development leading to official recognition in terms of fellowships of the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA). Staff are expected to first become associate fellows and then progress to full fellowships with the option of later becoming senior fellows. Qualification involves compiling a portfolio of learning resources, course plans and digital courseware with the amount and nature of evidence depending on the level of fellowship. Teachers are encouraged to create digital portfolios of their teaching material for recognition. The development of digital skills is integrated into all professional development but comes into focus in activities such as an annual Digital Education Week, mentorships and regular lunchtime webinars. In addition, there are seminar days involving student representatives and teaching staff to discuss for example implementation of learning analytics, course design, curriculum development etc.

Effective use of the learning management system (at present moving from Blackboard to Brightspace) is supported by their benchmarks for the use of technology in learning and teaching that maps teaching and learning criteria with functions in the LMS and offers best practice examples. This is done in terms of their 3E framework: enhance, extend and empower.

The benchmarks and associated guidance and exemplars defined and provided here are aligned with the university’s Learning and Teaching Enhancement Strategy, and will enable the embedding of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Values in how we use the learning environment and other technologies to support learning, teaching and assessment.

Digital scholarship in terms of sharing scholarly practice and increasing research visibility is encouraged through schemes such as an annual fund to encourage research or study that must result in a paper submission to a journal as well as arranging a workshop or webinar. Three day writing retreats are arranged to help staff write their first scientific papers and this includes adjuncts and educational technologists.

Finally there is a clear strategy for openness, working towards a policy of open as default. A lot of course material is already open and they are planning to develop open textbooks and have joined the OERu partnership where they will offer open courses and validation of other partners' open courses.

I see a clear need for a model like this in Sweden, either by existing institutions in partnership or by a new institution. The key is that there is a university that focuses on providing inclusive and flexible higher education for all, no matter where they live, and sees "distance" as no object and the pedagogical use of digital media as default. The technology and methods already exist, what is often lacking is the will to change.

Finally my thanks to everyone at UHI for their hospitality and excellent discussions.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Offline digital resources - connecting the unconnected

In many parts of the world the idea of online education is still only a dream. Rural communities lack internet connectivity and even if mobiles are used, the networks can only offer basic services like voice and text. Refugee camps around the world are full of children who need to learn but lack books and educational resources. There are plenty of initiatives that offer education based on low bandwidth text and voice services but how can people learn basic internet skills that may be so vital for the future?

One inspiring solution to this is a non-profit initiative called KIWIX that allows you to download Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikimed, WikiVoyage, Project Gutenberg, and Stack Exchange as compressed content packages and then be able to browse and read them offline on virtually any device. The teacher first needs to be able to download the packages but once that is done the material can be distributed to, say, pupils in a school, using a specially designed wifi hotspot. All the software and content are all free to download and use.

KIWIX provides free software to bring free knowledge even to remote places. This may be a school on the countryside in a developing country. This may be you on a plane or in the wilderness. Wherever you go: KIWIX gives you access to Wikipedia, WikiVoyage, Project Gutenberg, and a lot more free content from the Internet – even if you don’t have an Internet connection.

Since Wikipedia is available in so many languages this solution offers schools in rural areas or refugee camps access to valuable educational resources when printed school books are either unavailable or too costly. Access to this type of online material can be vital for speakers of "smaller" languages and there are many cases of educators collaborating on developing their language's Wikipedia content. School books may be impossible to afford or even non-existent but by developing Wikipedia and using solutions like KIWIX teachers can give children access to educational resources and help them gain basic internet skills without even internet access.

The website describes successful applications of KIWIX in places like Ghana and Cuba where internet access is limited. Another option suggested is to provide access to sites that are blocked and censored in some countries, such as North Korea, though the risks of doing that may outweigh the benefits.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Communicative noise - a barrier to creativity?

For many people e-mail has become a communication black hole with an inbox that is out of control. As we drown in e-mail we hope to find salvation in exciting new communication platforms like Slack, Teams and Workplace that promise to streamline your messaging and help teams work more efficiently. The problem is that even if we start using new platforms we can't escape the gravitational pull of e-mail which is still the default communication tool in most organisations. As a result we end up having several communication channels open all day and each of them overflowing. Most days I have e-mail, Skype, Zoom, Messenger, Twitter and Whatsapp all open and although I can't say my own feeds are overwhelming, I can imagine that some people have moved from having only one overloaded communication tool to now having several. The trouble is that easy-to-use communication tools lead to us communicating even more and thus adding to the communicative noise.

This is the topic of an article by Rani Molla in Vox, The productivity pit: how Slack is ruining work. The problem with team platforms like Slack is that they are so easy to use that they facilitate endless discussions that eat up valuable working and thinking time. E-mail "discussions" can be very irritating especially if everyone uses the "reply all" button every time they write something. However in platforms like Slack, these chatty discussions go viral and the channel becomes extremely noisy and hard to switch off due to fear of missing out or being seen as anti-social. We often confuse communication with productivity. People or groups who are "noisy", in speech or in writing, are generally considered more active and therefore more productive/effective than those who are quiet. We get worried about students who are silent or groups who don't seem to be discussing as actively as others. If you don't contribute to the discussion you aren't doing your job, though in reality the reverse may be truer.

Remote workers are under particular strain to prove that they are working. For people not in an office, messaging colleagues or posting information becomes a way of demonstrating that they are doing their jobs.

There's also a link to our physical work spaces that are increasingly open and flexible to facilitate teamwork and spontaneous brainstorming. The problem here is that it's very hard to concentrate when there are dynamic discussions going on nearby. You can't help overhearing or wanting to join in the fun. Once again we reward and encourage noise rather than silence. Combine the noise in the physical environment to all the digital noise and we have a major problem.

Keeping up with these conversations can seem like a full-time job. After a while, the software goes from helping you work to making it impossible to get work done ... Also, workplace software doesn’t seem to have supplanted the very thing it was supposed to fix: email. Most people use both.

The success of workplace software is because they offer similar rewards to the social media platforms we use outside the workplace. They are extremely sticky, stimulating our need for recognition and belonging through likes, emojis and small talk. Of course they can also be used very creatively and can indeed enhance collaboration but on the other hand they can easily eat up lots of valuable time. Their stickiness also leads to them invading your private life.

There’s a reason you’re checking your work app at night and it’s not because you love your job. It’s because the communications and digital affirmations from your coworkers feel good.

The outcome of all this for me is that we need to reassess the value of "noisy" communication and stop equating it with productivity, efficiency or creativity. Truly creative ideas often come through silent reflection, free from distraction, but we have somehow forgotten this as we create increasingly noisy environments (the ubiquitous use of non-stop background music in public spaces is a further plague). Noisy communication is good in certain contexts like brainstorming, socialising and meetings but we need to reclaim the right to silence (both verbal and digital) for the really creative work.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Don't believe your eyes - this person does not exist

In a world full of fake news it's time to embrace the concept of fake people. An artificial intelligence system called StyleGAN developed by Nvidia is used on a site called to generate an infinite number of portrait photos of people who do not exist (watch the video below to see how it works). Just go to the site and simply reload the page to generate a new portrait. Some are extremely convincing though sometimes there are flaws that make you suspicious, such as strange skin features or ears that don't quite fit. However, I don't think we are meant to study the faces for any length of time, we will probably just see them as a gallery of "satisfied customers" in an advert or concerned citizens in political propaganda.

The phenomenon is described in an article from CNN, These people do not exist. Why websites are churning out fake images of people (and cats). Of course if you can generate fake people you can also generate fake cats, fake home interiors, fake cars and much more. There are many valid uses for a tool like this.

GANs-produced fakery can be fun — if you know what you're looking at — and potentially big business. A startup called Tangent, for example, says it is using GANs to modify faces of real-life models so online retailers can quickly (and realistically) tailor catalog images to shoppers in different countries rather than using different models or Photoshop. A video game company could use GANs to help come up with new characters, or iterate on existing ones.

There are also, of course, lots of less honest applications of this technology and that's what makes it scary. At least by letting us see these applications they make us aware that this technology exists and can be more careful in the future but once it is perfected how will we ever be able to tell the difference between reality and fiction? I also wonder how you can decide the copyright for these images since they are mashups of a vast number of photos of real people. Maybe it's time to stop saying things like "I'll believe it when I see it."