Thursday, October 29, 2020

Hiding behind our mobiles

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

I read a short thoughtful post by Anne-Marie Körling (in Swedish, I skydd av mobilen – något om de ensamma i skolanProtected by the mobile - about the lonely pupils in school) about how some school pupils use their mobile devices as a refuge when they feel threatened or excluded. There's a touching quote from a pupil who pretends to be checking important messages when classmates ignore her or to avoid getting into a confrontation. This also adds a seldom discussed element to the eternal discussion of whether or not to ban mobiles in schools. The option of hiding behind your mobile was only possible before the start of the school day. After that the pupils had to hand in their devices until the end of the school day and this meant that vulnerable and lonely pupils had no hiding place during break time.

This applies to all of us. We hide behind our mobiles to avoid contact, to protect our space and above all to look busy. I have been in many situations where I feel alone and awkward (conference mingle parties for example) and, as camouflage for my insecurity, I take out my mobile and pretend to be busy since it's much more acceptable than standing there looking lonely and bored. We live in a society where being busy gives you status and doing nothing is seen as weakness or laziness. So we fill our empty spaces with pretend activity, like checking our mobiles. In the past we hid behind newspapers or books, again giving the impression of doing something valuable. I remember commuting by train in a sea of newspapers every morning just as today's commuters are all immersed in their mobiles. It doesn't matter what you do there, a game, cat photos, scrolling down your Twitter feed, but the point is that you could be doing something important. I'm not bored or lonely, I'm answering important mails or reading brushing up my project management skills. 

We search our mobiles for some kind of contact, recognition or reassurance that we can't find in the physical space. Of course we can see them as distractions and substitutes for real life interaction but they also have a therapeutic value and offer us shelter from an often harsh reality. Simply banning them is schools can have unexpected side effects.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Accessible online meetings - work in progress

Photo by Daniel Ali on Unsplash

In almost all synchronous meetings, either on-site or online, there are people who are in some way excluded. Whatever time you choose it will not suit everyone and even if the meeting is recorded the absentees can only be spectators with little or no opportunity to affect the outcome. Often there is no time to let everyone speak or the discussion is dominated by a vocal minority. In online meetings there are always participants with poor internet connections or older devices that don't support the latest versions of the software being used. A further dimension to the exclusivity of synchronous meetings is how well they offer support to participants with special needs. How well can people with hearing or sight impairments follow your webinars or conference sessions and how can we improve the experience?

An article from Drake MusicAccessibility in Video Conferencing and Remote Meetings, gives some good suggestions for making online meetings more accessible. For those with hearing difficulties, automatic subtitling is obviously the best option, but at the moment this is not available in all platforms. Zoom for example, offer the option of adding a third-party app for automatic subtitling or enabling a manual service if you have a colleague who can type very quickly. I suspect this feature will soon become default but the accuracy of speech to text apps will vary greatly depending on language. As ever they work best in English and other major languages. An interesting idea when showing slides is to share the slide preview page instead of the full screen slide. The reason for this is that your slide notes will be very useful for those who have trouble following your speech. 

Another option is employing a sign language interpreter. New features in Zoom include the option to spotlight several people in the video view and so you can spotlight both the speaker and the interpreter. Taking this concept a little further how about being able to offer simultaneous interpretation into other languages? This would mean having separate voice channels and allowing participants to listen to an interpreter rather than the speaker. I don't think any platform offers this facility but it would really increase the accessibility and reach of international webinars if they could be available in different languages, as well as in sign language.

For those with sight impairment good audio is essential and that means strictly muting everyone other than the speaker to eliminate background noise. Speakers should also make sure they use a good headset or desktop microphone for best audio quality. Speaking clearly and slightly more slowly gives everyone time to follow you and any visual material must be described. In addition it is a good idea to identify yourself when you want to speak. In this context the webinar becomes more like a traditional telephone conference where the role of the chair is vital. Small breakout groups can be more spontaneous and group notes can be uploaded as audio files to a common work space.

Another approach to greater accessibility is to reduce the importance of the synchronous meeting and learning to meet and collaborate asynchronously. Here the input can be recorded in advance with good subtitling and text manuscript and discussion can be curated in a community that allows text, audio or video comments and a format that is in line with relevant accessibility requirements. Bandwidth requirements are much lower for asynchronous platforms and participants can even submit text responses from a mobile. We may be surprised at the greater response levels compared to a traditional video conference. Maybe we need to ask ourselves when we really need a synchronous meeting and how much we can achieve in other ways.  

I will admit that I have not been very aware of these issues until recently and I have a lot to learn. I am keen to learn more.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The problem with prizes

Photo by Joshua Golde on Unsplash

Most universities and schools have annual polls to find the best teacher of the year. This is a great honour of course and the idea is to reward good teaching and provide inspiration to other teachers. We have a great fascination for prize winners in all areas of society; from sporting awards to Oscars and Nobel prizes. Everyone loves a winner. The problem is that the focus is so often on individuals rather than the teams behind them and it is often unclear what the selection criteria are.

I started thinking about this after hearing a presentation at a Swedish online conference this week. The authors, Jeanna Wennerberg, Klara Bolander Laksov och Tore West, presented results from a study of nominations for best teacher awards at Stockholm University and examined in particular gender issues. The paper has not been published yet so I will not reveal too many details, but the study showed a clear bias in favour of male teachers (77% male 23% female). Interestingly, female students overwhelmingly nominated male teachers. The students' nominations were accompanied by criteria to justify the choice and there were clear trends there such as female teachers being seen to be better at building good relations with students and being more inclusive. However in general male teachers were seen as meeting a greater number of criteria for nomination. When we celebrate  a winner we need to consider what biases and preconceptions lie behind the nomination. What makes a great teacher?

I think most of us can admit that during our education we have had a teacher who we hated at the time. They worked us hard, challenged us, nagged and made us uncomfortable. They never gave us the right answers we needed for the exam but forced us to work things out for ourselves. But later on in life you realise that this teacher was the one who really taught you valuable lessons. They will never win any awards because their effect is only visible at a distance. How do we capture this in our best teacher awards or in course evaluation forms?

This backs up many other studies about student evaluations of teachers and raises many questions about the validity of these subjective and spontaneous assessments. Gender is one of several variables where unconscious bias and prejudices play an important role; accent/dialect, socio-economic background, nationality, ethnicity etc. How far do stereotyped ideals affect nominations and evaluations? 

Given that teaching today is becoming increasingly a team effort where several teachers design a course in close collaboration with educational technologists, librarians and media specialists, is a focus on the teacher as soloist still a valid strategy? Even if we see that teamwork is such an important factor and that the less visible members are just as important as the front figure we still revert to the urge to nominate individuals. It's similar in examination where we assess an individual's ability and seldom assess and reward a team.

I am not criticising the hard work of the teachers who do receive best teacher awards. They do a great job and deserve their award. But we do need to think a bit more deeply about how we define good teaching and how it is evaluated and judged. It's much more complex than a simple spot poll. Interestingly, the Nobel prize winners this year feature several research teams and the peace prize went to a collective, the UN World Food Programme

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Zoom and beyond - new variations for online meetings and conferences

Videoconferencing has now become an everyday feature in virtually all forms of education and the there has been a rapid development of new platforms and collaborative features over the last few months. Zoom has been in the forefront this year but there are now alternative solutions that offer wider opportunities for educators, some built on Zoom and others with alternative solutions. Like many platforms and tools used in education, Zoom was originally designed for business rather than education. When I first started using it, I found it frustratingly focused on presentations and one-way communication with the chat function added as an afterthought. However, Zoom have been very active this year in adding features requested by its extremely large customer base in education, but many educators still feel that it still isn't fully adapted to an educational setting. Luckily, Zoom offers other companies the opportunity to build new apps that plug into Zoom and that has allowed niche players the chance to build interesting adaptations.

So now there are a few interesting Zoom-based platforms that are more adapted to class teaching or educational conferences as described in an article in Inside Higher EdInnovators Seek Zoom University 2.0. Building on Zoom, Class for Zoom, offers a more flexible environment for class teaching featuring more flexible arrangement of the class video streams, easy one-to-one sessions, built-in tests, quizzes and assignments, examinations, attendance and performance monitoring and so on. The platform is still in a beta version and is not yet commercially available but it is a sign of a new wave of more specialised spaces for digital meetings. The features of Class for Zoom can be seen in the following short promotional video.

Another Zoom-based solution that I see great potential in is QiqoChat. This is designed for online conferences and combines Zoom with Google Drive and other tools to support asynchronous conferences featuring working groups that collaborate on drawing up reports, documents and proposals. You can offer plenary sessions where all participants can listen to and discuss input and then divide into groups, each with a different task, who then discuss and collaborate over a period of days or weeks using collaborative documents interspersed with group video meetings. Platforms like this offer new horizons for online conferences, escaping the confines of the physical conference and becoming more asynchronous and inclusive.

An interesting alternative to Zoom is InSpace, offering a new visualisation of online meetings and class interaction. The usual features for screen-sharing and interaction are all there but the interaction is much simpler and more intuitive. Here the participants can move their photo avatars around the screen to talk to each other and you have to stand beside someone to be able to talk to them. The article in Inside Higher Ed interviews one of InSpace's founders, Narine Hall

One of Hall's biggest frustrations with Zoom was that as an instructor, she couldn’t easily move between breakout discussion groups. With InSpace, Hall can create multiple breakout rooms, which appear as squares on the screen. Move your avatar inside the box, and you can hear the conversation that takes place inside it. Move outside the box, and you can no longer hear the group.

This features enables conference mingling and group discussions in a more intuitive way than in Zoom and the other standard platforms. 

On a similar theme there is also Shindig, a platform that has been around for a couple of years now, that enables participants to form spontaneous groups and interact with other participants as you would in a physical setting. 

One vital feature of all these platforms is how they deal with accessibility issues such as built-in automatic subtitling. In Europe we now have demands that videos used in educational should have subtitles to help especially those with hearing difficulties. I was recently involved in a meeting in Google Meet and was very impressed by its built-in speech to text function that was almost fault-free for me (at least in English). Hopefully all platforms will soon be able to offer this.

Online meetings are here to stay and the race is on to find the ultimate platform. Each of the platforms I have mentioned here has very useful features and we can hope that there will soon be one that joins all the dots. I haven't even mentioned the use of virtual worlds and virtual reality (see earlier posts on that theme). However, as with all educational technology there will be terms and conditions that apply and educators will have to be careful to check where all the data is stored and what the company plans to do with it.