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.