Sunday, February 16, 2020

Deconferencing or unconferencing?


Educational conferences are big business and whatever field you work in you'll find a conference somewhere every week of the year. Take a look, for example, at Contact North's excellent overview of conferences in educational technology for the year ahead - a breathtaking 1700 of them! All of them involving a hefty carbon footprint in terms of air travel. As I've written before, we can't go on meeting like this.

Now there's a growing interest in deconferencing; reducing the number of conferences you attend, ultimately to zero. This is not just about reducing our climate anxiety, there is also the question of what you actually gain from attending conferences. Are the benefits to you and your organisation worth the time and effort or do you go simply because you are expected to or simply due to habit? After a while you realise that you have heard most things before and the number of eureka moments per conference is alarmingly low. Over the last year I have been trying to only attend conferences that can be reached by train. One advantage of this is that you have to think carefully before signing up for a conference. Is it really worth those lengthy train journeys and a lot of leisure time sitting on trains and waiting at stations? I'm also aware that train journeys are not always environmentally friendly, especially if the trains are hauled by diesel locomotives. But it's not just about cutting the air miles, it's about rethinking the meaning of conferences and trying to finding new arenas to meet.

I can recommend an excellent post on the topic by Alan Levine (aka CogDog), On deconferencing. He has withdrawn from the conference circuit and explains the reasons and it's not just about carbon footprints. It's also about the exclusivity of big conferences. Many of us who get paid to attend conferences tend to take it all for granted and seldom stop to think how privileged we are. We are part of an exclusive club and we tend to forget that there are millions of academics who cannot afford to attend or face visa restrictions and other barriers even if they can afford the fees. He admits that he was one of the club:
It was for work. It was just part of the job. Even later, when going independent, others still paid my fares in exchange for presenting/workshopping. I earned it, right? And it felt, yes, a bit glamorous. And I was there to to tweet out all the foibles of travel woes, missed planes, rude TSA agents, bland food.
Never thinking about how that looked to someone who did not get such opportunities.
As a road warrior, I was so… justified.
However his main reason for unconferencing is the search for deeper discussion and the limitations of the traditional conference format:
Even now, I picture these large conference halls where most folks are there tweeting slides. 
We need to rethink our conferences or better still devise new arenas for meaningful, accessible and inclusive discussion with less dependence on airlines and expensive hotels.
Conference on… but I am deconferencing. I am looking for better ways to share knowledge, ideas that can include more people and less travel, but just plain… better.
Experiments with digital conferences are promising but we shouldn't focus only on the digital arena. The concept of the unconference has been around for many years and is a physical gathering, generally small-scale, where groups get together and discuss issues of common interest without any keynotes or slideshows. These could also be arranged online. Many conferences fail to harvest the vast amount of knowledge and experience among the participants and the unconference is all about that. Maybe the future is more about more focused small-scale discussion groups, mixing synchronous and asynchronous as well as on-site and online collaboration.

I don't mean we scrap major conferences completely but we will certainly need to reduce their number and find other ways to meet. A major driver of academic conferences is their importance to researchers and demands for accepted conference papers as professional recognition. Maybe we can find new ways of recognising researchers in a more inclusive and interactive arena.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The unheard students


Despite a wealth of reports and studies on the importance of lifelong learning and the need for professional development and reskilling, the focus of most higher education institutions is still firmly on traditional full-time campus programmes aimed at young students. Mature students studying part-time and mostly online are generally peripheral and invisible to the institution's core business. A new report from HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) in the UK, Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners, raises this issue and gives a voice to these unheard students. There has been a dramatic reduction in the numbers of mature students studying in England over the past 5 years and even though the trend isn't completely shared by the other nations of the UK there is a need for a new approach. Higher university fees in England and Wales have certainly excluded applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However it is not simply an issue of high fees. A similar trend is visible even here in Sweden where there are no fees, but a policy decision to focus on traditional campus degree programmes has led to a drop in the number of online courses available to mature students.

Of course there are open universities in many countries around the world who address this issue and offer flexible higher education to this important segment, but since demand is growing we need more institutions to widen their scope. Governments seldom make significant investments in lifelong learning and universities are still primarily research institutions with an attractive campus as their physical presence in the community. Say the word student and most people think of young people between 18 - 23 who study full-time on campus and this image is reflected in the imagery of practically every university's website. However, for most mature students full-time campus study is simply not an option. You cannot just give up your work and move your family to a campus city. The vast majority of mature students study part-time and the report outlines many of the barriers that they have to overcome. To understand this target group universities need to understand that mature part-time students have a different profile from full-time campus students:
  • They do not identify themselves primarily as students. Their identities as parents or professionals are much stronger and as a result their ties to the institution where they study are much weaker than traditional students.
  • They are interested in finding a course that is flexible and fits their existing lifestyle and are less interested in which institution provides it.
  • They tend not to join student unions and their voice is seldom heard on faculty boards and committees.
  • Because of the difficulties of managing part-time study, work and family commitments many mature students have to be very adaptive and creative to complete their studies. The existing structures do not help them.
  • They are often unfamiliar with the study skills and academic terminology that are taken for granted in a campus setting and this can cause confusion as well as creating feelings of inadequacy.
  • At the same time, mature students are often highly motivated and resourceful since course completion can help them into a new career or give them opportunities for advancement. They have clearer goals for their studies than many campus students.
The report raises concern that the current lack of incentives and opportunities for lifelong learning, particularly in England risks creating a serious level of inequality.

The crisis engulfing part-time adult learners in England points to an impoverished future in which higher education morphs into a purely full-time experience for 18-year olds fortunate enough to be born in the right place, attend the right school and gain the right A-Level grades. No more ‘second-chance’ transformations, no more learn-while-you-earn, no more enriching learning with contributions from adults who can bring different life experiences. Flexible opportunities for those disadvantaged individuals who cannot study full-time may all but vanish.

Changes are urgently needed and many of the report's recommendations can be applied in other countries around the world. One major factor is better recognition of prior learning, especially relevant workplace experience, and this would help reduce the study time necessary for a qualification. Another important factor is better guidance in the transition from adult education and non-formal learning into the formal university system. This is referred to as access pedagogy and can include preparatory courses and online guides focusing on study skills and academic writing and generally developing the students' confidence and resilience. Once accepted into a course the many students who are new to higher education will need initial extra support and tutoring is seen as particularly important:

... recognising some students will feel they do not belong, will feel they are transitioning ‘across separate worlds with no guidebook’, and will progress as a small and isolated cohort – so support students with tutors who will continue the higher education journey with them.

This support could come from various sources and not necessarily from university teachers. Support could come from local learning centres or from more experienced online students who could act as mentors. With such scaffolding in place there will be fewer dropouts and society will benefit from more people getting the chance to reskill and upskill. We keep hearing about the lack of qualified skilled people to fill vacancies in both the public and private sectors and it's time to do something about it.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

What happens on campus when everyone's online?


Most universities and colleges see online education as a supplement to the core business of the traditional campus. The institution's soul lies in the campus with its buildings, parks and meeting spaces and the everyday interaction between staff and students. But what happens when the online sector outgrows the campus? When most of the staff and students are working from home the campus loses its function as a meeting place. The physical campus has enormous symbolic value and if a visitor sees very few people milling around it is easy to draw the conclusion that the place is ready to close down, even if the online courses are full and very active.

These thoughts are discussed in a short post by Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed, Online Enrollment and Campus Culture. His college has a rapidly rising number of online students and this is also affecting staff presence on campus as more and more prefer to teach from home. Empty corridors and quiet staff rooms can negatively affect staff morale and the feeling of community is eroded.

... it’s hard to convey a welcoming campus culture when fewer faculty are around at any given time. The feel of a department starts to change. If people who used to be on campus four days a week are suddenly here only two days a week, areas that used to bustle with activity start to feel like ghost towns. The culture starts to fray.

This in turn influences the students' sense of belonging to a living institution.

Students can tell the difference between a bustling area and a dead one. They draw a message from an entire hallway of closed doors and empty offices.

There are no clear answers but one guiding principal is to make the campus experience as valuable and unmissable as possible. Of course many distance students live too far away to attend campus meetings on a regular basis but all should be encouraged to spend some time there. Most of them are happy to travel if they can but there needs to be a very good reason for doing so; not just to get information that could have been delivered in a recorded video. Even established institutions need to rethink the physical campus, what it offers and why students and staff can benefit from being there. That added value should never be taken for granted.

Many institutions have succeeded in creating stimulating collaborative learning spaces where academic and social events can take place. At the same time we need to extend the college community into the digital spaces and find ways to blend the two environments. How can online students participate easily in campus events and be visible in doing so? How can we make campus students more aware of their online counterparts and create a common culture and community? These questions were partly addressed in the British JISC project, Sticky campus, where they experimented with setting up learning spaces where campus and online students could interact, even outside regular class activities. If we can use technology to make bridges between campus and online we can create a greater sense of community for all. The online students can become more visible and  feel part of campus activities and this will hopefully motivate them to some day make the trip to see it for real.


Monday, January 13, 2020

Innovating pedagogy 2020 - time for sustainable education?

CC BY-NC Some rights reserved by The Open University
The UK's Open University, in collaboration with the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL), Dublin City University, Ireland, has published its annual review of innovations in teaching and learning in higher education, Innovating pedagogy 2020. This the eighth report in a row and has common features with the much hyped NMC Horizon reports, such as predictions about the potential impact and timescales of each innovative practice described. These criteria are notoriously inaccurate (especially in the Horizon reports) and should not be taken too seriously but the descriptions, conclusions and references are interesting as indications on the present wind directions in the use of technology in higher education.

The ten areas examined by the report are:
  • Artificial intelligence in education. This means learning for, about and with AI. It is also vital that educators are involved in the implementation of AI and make sure it is used to benefit teaching and learning.
    ... what is clear is that the topic of AI in education is too important to be left to engineers and entrepreneurs. Instead, it is critical that educators, learning scientists and other stakeholders engage, to ensure that the AI applied in educational contexts best supports the learners, the teachers and the learning.
  • Posthumanist perspectives. This concerns the blurring of boundaries between humans and machines and the potential of this interaction for the benefit of education.
  • Learning through open data. Public organisations all over the world produce enormous amounts of open data that should be used in universities to enable students to use authentic data for research purposes.
  • Engaging with ethics. The (un)ethical use of personal data has been in the headlines for the last couple of years with the rise of what is often termed as surveillance capitalism. It is vital that students learn to learn how their data is used and misused and to gain a mature and informed attitude to the platforms and tools they use.
    Teachers and other education practitioners can actively engage their students with ethics by presenting authentic case-studies and giving opportunities for active discussion, ideally with people from different cultural settings and backgrounds. Only by engaging with ethics can we learn that our own mindset might not necessarily be shared by others.
  • Social justice pedagogy. Developing the ability to see issues from different perspectives, especially in terms of power structures, prejudice, roles, accessibility issues etc.
    For individuals, the process of thinking about how they came to know what they know, and what they think about what they know, can be very challenging. Specific teacher education may be required, to encourage and prepare teachers to adopt a social justice pedagogy and to deal with how the approach may play out in class.
  • Esports. The world of online gaming shows the power of learning and problem-solving in a community. These lessons are now being applied to create immersive learning communities.
  • Learning from animations. Animations are being increasingly used to show processes, procedures and movement.
  • Multisensory learning. Smell,taste and touch can be used more in learning activities.
  • Offline networked learning. Millions of people have limited or no internet access but can still benefit from digital resources in local networks run on battery or solar powered servers.
  • Online laboratories. Access to realistic virtual online labs give authentic laboratory experience to students who would otherwise never have access to such physical facilities.
The report is in general positive about the future as long as we can learn to harness the dangers of big data and artificial intelligence. Our attitudes to technology have changed and we need to be much more critical and cautious of the global tech giants.

The theme that interests me most is that of offline networked learning. Using battery powered mini servers and a wireless network, students in remote areas can work together with digital resources in a closed offline network (see also my post, Online learning - unplugged). This solution is also being used for education in prisons where internet access is not appropriate. However it is not only a solution for remote regions, there are arguments for closed networks even in developed regions. The report mentions the concept of  slow learning:

Networked offline learning brings people together in meaningful collaboration and sharing activities that can create opportunities for a slower, more deliberate learning experience than is typical on the Internet. 

Maybe we need to experiment with working in such distraction-free digital spaces to relearn how to focus. I don't mean that we go completely offline but a future skill will be learning to go offline in order to focus without losing the advantages of digital collaboration.

However, the biggest issue of all today is how education intends to face the greatest challenge of all today - the climate crisis. This is mentioned only briefly in the report but none of the innovations discussed will be of any relevance if the climate issue is not addressed immediately. Unless radical and uncomfortable changes take place on a global scale in the next ten years the future looks extremely dark. The educational sector must push harder for these changes, through further research but more importantly by integrating the message of United Nations sustainable development goals 2030 in every course and classroom. As I have previously written, we must develop sustainable ways to meet and collaborate, primarily through digital meetings and conferences. The carbon footprint of the higher education sector is extremely high through countless international projects and conferences (read more in this article in University World News, Time to cut international education’s carbon footprint). We cannot stop this completely but we could surely half the level if we develop better digital arenas for collaboration and learn how to use them effectively. As with all other aspects of the climate crisis, we know the dangers and we have solutions but entrenched attitudes and habits are the hardest things to change. My top trend for 2020 would be rethinking academic culture and focusing on sustainable education.

Reference
Kukulska-Hulme, A., Beirne, E., Conole, G., Costello, E., Coughlan, T., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Holmes, W., Mac Lochlainn, C., Nic Giolla Mhichíl, M., Rienties, B., Sargent, J., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M. and Whitelock, D. (2020). Innovating Pedagogy 2020: Open University Innovation Report 8. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Monday, January 6, 2020

A decade of broken dreams and big business


I strongly urge you to read Audrey Watters' review of the past decade in educational technology, The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade. It's a catalogue of the buzzwords, hypes, deceptions and snake-oil solutions that have made the educational technology headlines in recent years. Even if the focus is on the US edtech industry, most of the solutions will be familiar to educators everywhere. I have long admired Watters' courage over the years, daring to criticise the hypocrisy and cynicism of the tech industry when most of us were singing its praises and falling for the alluring tales of disruption and free education for all. The past decade has been a journey of broken dreams.

Number one in Watters' list of debacles is anti-school shooter software, the result of the USA's insane attitude to guns and mass shootings. School shootings are now so commonplace that an entire industry has developed to "protect" schools, identify shooters and alert the police. This involves increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology with enormous amounts of student data being gathered by corporations. This industry is hardly visible anywhere else in the world but is a desperately sad indictment of modern society.

Many of the phenomena described in the article fall under the following loose categories (though they are all of course interrelated):

Surveillance
Data is indeed the new oil and corporations are now able to refine the raw data of clicks, location tracking, preferences and interaction into business opportunities. Edtech software including learning management systems gather enormous amounts of student data and this can now be monetised. The prospect of using, for example, Amazon's voice assistant Alexa at school should set off alarm bells. Learning analytics seems to be largely focused on tracking and surveillance and all that data has a high commercial value. Instructure's proposed sale to equity firm Thoma Bravo for $2 billion would seem to confirm the potential value of student data. Plagiarism detection tool Turnitin has amassed a vast pool of student assignments that they can sell. The list goes on. Despite attempts, at least in Europe, to tighten laws on the exploitation of personal data we still happily accept those pesky terms and conditions when the pop up on our screens.

Educational mythology 
The Silicon Valley narrative that the traditional education system is inadequate to educate students for the 21st century has been very persuasive. As a result, we hear that the students (so-called digital natives) are driving the change and are already using technology to "hack" the system and learn on their own terms (some may be doing this but claims are highly exaggerated). This disruption narrative claims that edtech is the way forward to meeting the demands of this new generation of students who will be working in jobs that do not exist today (this has always been true - parents in the early 20th century could never have guessed that their children would become car designers, pilots or astronauts). The industry has capitalised on the FOMA (fear of missing out) factor among educational leaders with claims that MOOCs are the future of higher education and that companies like Udacity will become the Uber of education. Many institutions have been easily persuaded to make enormous investments to ensure they are seen as embracing the opportunities of the digital revolution. Sadly there have been unscrupulous actors running a whole industry of fake online universites and fake degrees. Watters' list is full of examples of this narrative and the reckless claims to disrupt education that didn't quite deliver.

Many of the leading names in the tech industry have of course invested in philanthropic initiatives that Watters calls venture philanthropy. There are surely benefits in this but inevitably there is a business case even for philanthropy:

These philanthropists’ visions for the future of education and education technology mirror their own businesses: the child will be the customer. The child’s data will be mined. The child’s education will be personalized.

Free
If it's free there's a catch, though even if you pay for it there's still generally a catch. Your data is the price you pay.

...if you’re using a piece of technology that’s free, it’s likely that your personal data is being sold to advertisers or at the very least hoarded as a potential asset (and used, for example, to develop some sort of feature or algorithm).

Free tools are used very successfully by millions of teachers to enhance their teaching, but there is always the danger that the company goes bust or gets bought by a larger company who then try to monetise it. One example of this was the social network platform Ning that was extremely popular among educators in the first half of the decade but was then bought and put behind a paywall.

Miracle cures
There have been so many headlines about how a particular device or method will disrupt/revolutionise education. From MOOCs to clickers to smartboards to virtual reality. They all have merits when applied well but the inflated expectations and sensational headlines have lead to many extremely expensive investments (and nice profits for some) and many shattered dreams.

In addition there are examples of more bizarre methods to monitor students in the form of skin response bracelets, brainwave headbands and the compulsory use of  fitness trackers for campus students (providing of course lots of useful personal data!). These are often based on quasi-scientific theories and rolled out with convincing optimism.

Flops
The list is full of ambitious and hyped solutions that belly-flopped: for example One laptop per child, Google Glass (and many other Google services that have died during the decade) and Amazon Inspire. Flops will always happen in an innovative market so there is now real surprise here but maybe the point is how the hype takes over the narrative and we all get swept along with it.

So where are we heading as we move into the twenties? I can't see the commercialisation of education going away any time soon, rather an intensification of the process from both industry and politics. Free and open education is still possible but the educators must own the platforms and the users must give informed consent to their data being stored and know that they can always demand their data back (a cornerstone of the European GDPR legislation). Maybe it's time to move to open source solutions and revive the idea behind platforms like Wikiuniversity and Wikieducator - they may have been clunky but they were open and non-commercial. Above all we need to be much more aware of media hype and attractive but misleading generalisations. Question everything and learn how and when to switch off.