Monday, June 21, 2021

Webinar recordings - what's missing?

Photo by Samantha Borges on Unsplash
The past couple of years have seen an explosion in the number of webinars aimed at educators. Many of these are recorded and many recordings get many more views than the original live session. However, watching a recording is a very different experience to participating live. Live webinars feature interactive elements like chat, polls and external tools and those are generally missing from the recordings. What's left is the content minus a lot of the discussion. Here are a few thoughts on what's missing and suggestions on how to make recordings more valuable.

Chat.
In many webinars the chat contains valuable comments, links and information that offer added value. It's a space to share ideas and experience and sometimes the chat is more interesting than the speaker. I used to use Adobe Connect and there the chat is included in the recording, raising the value considerably, often including lots of valuable links to related articles and projects. Some people focused on the chat during the live session and watched the recording to hear what the speakers said. However in Zoom the chat is not included in the recording and as a result an important element of the webinar communication is lost. I can understand that including the chat in the recording requires the approval of all participants and that this was not fully respected before. You can, of course, download a text file of the chat but that needs to be edited and converted so that the links become active and unnecessary comments removed. I would like to see the return of the chat window in the recording, maybe with the option to anonymise the names of those commenting.

Context
Participants' anonymity in recordings is important but it can backfire. In Zoom recordings the names of those who appear are hidden and so it's not always clear who is speaking. You see the face and hear the voice but who is it? Another issue is that the speakers refer to comments in the chat that viewers of the recording cannot see or the results of a poll that are invisible in the recording. That's why it's important to read out the comment first before answering it. It's very frustrating to hear comments like "Thanks for that insightful comment Anna" and not tell us what the comment was. Many presenters are unaware that the results of a poll are not shown in the recording so please avoid saying, "as you can see from the poll results ..." Awareness of what is recorded and what it will look like is essential.

Video
It's important to be aware of what is being recorded. Whoever initiates the recording must make sure that they stay in speaker view so that the speaker is in focus. It's easy to forget this and by accident you show the full gallery of participants in the recording with the risk that one of them does something distracting, forgetting that they are in full view. At the same time it can also be effective to switch briefly to gallery view at some point to show viewers of the recording that there were many people present in the session. That requires the consent of the participants of course but it gives a sense of community to the recording, that you are part of an event. Otherwise the recording can be focused on one face for lengthy periods and there is no sense that anyone else was present.

Editing
Many of us tend to just upload an unedited recording and share the link. Watching a recording means that you often have to press the forward wind button to skip the small talk and transitions. An edited version of maybe 25 minutes with the key points would be the best option and get more attention than a long and 60 minutes, warts and all. Watch a recording and you'll be surprised how much time is spent on pleasantries, introductions and transitions. Important for the flow of the live event but irrelevant in the recording. An edited version should also include captioning. All that takes time of course, something that most teachers lack, but the value of the recording is increased significantly.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Digital resilience - navigating a myriad of tools and platforms

Photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash
Digital resilience for me is the ability to adapt in a digital world: being able to use a variety of devices, tools and platforms and being able to carry out standard checks and routines when something doesn't work as expected. Vendors always claim their products to be intuitive and user-friendly but that only applies when you've learned how to use them. That resilience has been tested to the limit during the pandemic as we all work from home and are completely dependent on all our digital devices, tools and spaces.

Most organisations offer staff a limited but structured range of digital tools and platforms for everyday use. Those are maintained, regularly tested and updated and there is support, backup and security for all. Even within the organisation the range can be wide enough to cause confusion, but as soon as you start working with external partners the complexities increase. Most days I move relatively nimbly between the university's platforms to all sorts of external ones. Meetings are mostly in Zoom but also in Teams or Google Meet or even Skype. I have contacts spread over e-mail, Zoom chat, Whatsapp, Messenger, Twitter, Facebook groups, Slack as well as various discussion forums. I share documents in Microsoft 365, Box and Google Drive. The list goes on. Navigating all these takes time and energy and maybe our overflowing toolboxes are an energy drain rather than an advantage. 

The more tools we use the more inefficient we get and this is the gist of an article in TechRepublic, Remote working technology is creating a productivity nightmare. It describes results from a survey produced by Cornell University and QatalogWorkgeist Report ‘21, that investigated over 1,000 employees' attitudes to the plethora of digital tools used during the home working period of the last year. The price of this digital diversity has been high with 43% of those surveyed saying that they spend too much time switching between tools and using up to an hour every day checking for and answering messages on different platforms.

As a result, employees are wasting up to five hours every week switching between different digital tools, cycling through tabs and digging through messaging channels. It's also fuelling workplace slip-ups, with 48% of respondents admitting to making mistakes as a result of being unable to keep track of what's going on across different channels.

The report claims that productivity tools are killing productivity with information and communication distributed over a growing number of platforms, tools and apps. Information often gets lost in e-mail conversations or in Slack groups that are simply invisible to everyone else. Restricted communication is of course essential but these spaces can sometimes hide important enclosed documents that are not stored anywhere else.

People are losing time scouring messaging channels, navigating project management boards, and digging through cloud storage systems. They spend about of their typical workday doing this; it’s time that could be better spent doing focussed work like designing a new product or getting user feedback.

Some people take a dislike to their organisation's recommended tool and decide to use an alternative. This tool may well suit their purpose but using it means that the information shared there is invisible to the rest of the organisation. Important information risks being stored in silos that only a few people know about. According to Tariq Rauf, CEO and founder of Qatalog, in the TechRepublic article:
There's been an explosion in the number of apps we rely on to do our jobs, but the result isn't greater productivity – it's total chaos. ... No matter their individual merits, each tool is adding to a noisy digital environment that is, quite literally, driving workers to distraction. The more time that we waste on this mess, the less we have for deep thought and meaningful engagement with our colleagues.
The report offers recommendations to organisations on how to streamline their use of digital tools and find smarter solutions that facilitate transparency and ease of use. However, the problem for many of us remain - no matter how well-planned your internal communication channels are, whenever you step outside and work with external partners your collection of tools starts growing again. While we wait for the ultimate solution (Godot 2.0?) we will need to become even more resilient.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Busyness and the quest for approval

Is the cult of busyness in danger of dying out at last in the wake of the pandemic? Being extremely busy has been a status symbol for many years and social media have been full of busy people proudly telling everyone else how busy they are. It's a lifestyle that is reflected and spurred by popular culture presenting role models who effortlessly combine extremely demanding careers with family, ambitious building and renovation projects, vibrant social life, hobbies and work for charity. Holidays are as filled with activity as working days and just hanging around doing nothing special is not an option. This stress is not always due to pressure from employers, much of it is self-imposed in an attempt to prove your worth and gain approval. Social media have flourished as a channel for this.

The potential demise of this frenzied lifestyle is discussed in an article by Shayla Love in Vice magazineThe cult of busyness. Busyness is full of paradoxes.Those who are most proud of their busyness are those who could easily afford to take it easy but seek status by being constantly booked up and stressed. Those who are poorer don't see their lack of time as a status symbol - for them it's the only way to make ends meet in a gig economy where one job is never enough.

Busyness is a powerful social signal, though a somewhat counterintuitive one. At the turn of the 20th century, economists predicted that the ultimate symbol of wealth and success would be leisure—showing others that you were so successful that you could abstain from work. Instead, the opposite occurred. It’s not free time, but busyness, that gestures to a person’s relevance.

The education sector is particularly afflicted with busyness. In higher education the pressure to design and run courses as well as conducting research, writing articles and applying for funding means that many are putting in far more working hours than they will ever be paid for. Sadly many posts in social media glorify this kind of lifestyle and create a culture of guilt among those who can't match the extreme productivity of those who post that over the weekend they have graded so many exam papers, applied for research funding, written a new book chapter and had a fun day out with the family. Stress creates stress and becomes a hamster wheel that we can't escape from.

The past year has forced many to reconsider their busyness. When you work from home and there are no events or meetings to rush to there is suddenly more time available. You realise how much of your working days were spent in transit to meetings or classes. The article describes the process of deceleration where the number of busy activities is drastically reduced and there is more time to focus on what's left. Many people realise that they don't want to go back to commuting to the office, drinking coffee on the go or eating lunch in front of a screen. 

I can't see us completely abandoning busyness, but a slower lifestyle has at least gained approval and there are more status updates in social media showing more relaxing activities like walks in the country, gardening or other hobbies. Even when we return to our offices I suspect there will be new routines and many of us will not want to go there every day. Pressures will remain but if we can at least think twice before we post updates boasting of how many tasks we have completed today that will be an improvement. Think what effect your update will have on others and tag down a bit. Share your good moments but not your stress.

Will these changes stick? Or will we go right back to worshipping busyness at the cost of everything else? Bellezza isn’t as optimistic about deceleration replacing busyness as the leading social status signal, but she acknowledged that when she started studying busyness, there wasn’t any discussion about deceleration at all. She’s glad it’s entered the conversation, and tries to practice deceleration in her own life.

A final thought. This phenomenon is of course available to people in well-paid stable jobs that allow the freedom to choose how they work. Most people don't have the option. We need to remember that before we generalise about the future of work. But that's another topic.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

MOOCs in study circles for teacher professional development

A return to an old theme this week of how we can use MOOCs to complement on-site training. Even if many MOOCs offer opportunities for forum discussions, many people would benefit from face-to-face discussions around the course material, especially in their own language. There are many examples around the world where groups of people decide to form a support community to help each other through a MOOC (MOOC meet-ups, learning hubs etc). This community can meet weekly either online or better still face-to-face. The community offers a safe space for asking question and discussing course topics and can be the difference between completing the course and dropping out in confusion.

The idea of self-organising study groups is firmly anchored in the Nordic tradition of study circles developed in the 19th century by pioneers like the Danish pastor N. F. S. Grundtvig. The principle here is also collaborative learning, a kind of community of interest. None of the group is necessarily an expert or teacher so the group decides together how to structure the course and one course can inspire a new one. Generally one of the circle acts as a facilitator but the study form is collaborative investigation and discussion. This form of study has spread internationally and can today be applied to studying a MOOC. The general principles and generic examples of the MOOC can be adapted by the study circle to local and specific cases thereby adding relevance and practical application.

One area where MOOCs can make an impact is in professional development. There are, for example, plenty of courses aimed at teachers and the study circle approach can work very well. To encourage this the European Commission’s Teacher Academy initiative on the School Education Gateway has published  a guide entitled Using Massive Open Online Courses in Schools. How to set up school-based learning communities to improve teacher learning on MOOCs. This is a step-by-step guide to organising a study group at a school or college to study a MOOC as professional development. Studying individually is challenging for many: finding time and maintaining motivation as well as the challenges of adapting to the course technology and learning in a foreign language. The moral support of colleagues adds a dimension that is not available in many MOOCs and the group can discuss how to apply the lessons learned in their own practice.

The study groups therefore offered a framework to support colleagues with low levels of digital and self-regulated learning competence to help them benefit from a MOOC, while at the same time contextualising and localising what was learned on the MOOC and facilitating a transfer to practice. Feedback from study group participants and the eight pilot teachers suggests that the study groups successfully addressed all of these areas. 
Here's a short film that gives a clear overview of the project and its outcomes.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Reading print is different to reading on screen

Photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash
I read a lot, both on paper and in digital formats, but the way I read the two formats is different. I find it hard to read lengthy texts on a screen, no matter how sharp the resolution. Maybe it's because I'm getting old and stuck in my ways, but I just can't concentrate on a digital text in the same way as a printed one. Digital texts come complete with built-in distractions (alerts from social media, e-mails, other web sites) that are always more interesting than what I'm reading and somehow I find myself programmed to distraction when I'm on a digital device. My digital reading tends to be fragmented and unfocused - skimming through articles to get the gist, checking references, following links to new content. I can also reveal that the same is true for writing. Writing online is a very messy process for me with repeated diversions to chats, e-mails, social media etc. and this post would certainly have been written much quicker on paper.

This cannot be written off as a generational issue according to an article by Naomi S. Baron in The ConversationWhy we remember more by reading – especially print – than from audio or video. Students have similar problems in reading digital texts and the article suggests that this is because we automatically adopt an entertainment mindset when approaching digital material. Research indicates that students remember more details from printed material because it demands more focused attention in a way that the digital equivalent does not. Reading a book is a spatial experience and we often remember details connected to where on the page or on which page a particular detail is mentioned. 

Interestingly, there is also evidence that many people have difficulty remembering details from audio and video material, so popular today in education in the context of the flipped classroom approach. Somehow our mind wanders when listening to or watching a recording and we all recognise the feeling of listening to news on the radio but not remembering what you have just heard. We also tend to do other things when we listen or watch (like running, making food, checking our mobile) in our futile attempts to be efficient multitaskers. Somehow, reading printed material is one activity that still demands full concentration.

The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.

Reading, listening and viewing in an educational context are skills that need to be developed. We need to become more aware of our concentration levels and our vulnerability to distraction and employ strategies to focus. This can mean taking notes or drawing a mind map. Or simply shutting down all our distractions.

Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn’t assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.

Paper is not inherently "better" than digital but its limitations are also an advantage in terms of not offering any potential distractions. In a world of distractions the ability to focus is a vital skill to learn.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Conferences - from exclusive to inclusive events

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Technology is often used simply to enable us to continue doing what we have always done but in a digital space. The same seems to be true for online conferences. New platforms and tools are being launched almost weekly and there is a bewildering diversity for organisers to choose between. The corporate market for online conferences is booming and will no doubt replace many of the on-site conferences after the pandemic has faded (though that could be further in the future than most would like to imagine). Digital media have the potential to help us rethink the conference into inclusive and accessible spaces for networking and sharing and there have indeed been many innovative examples in recent months, offering more spaces for discussion and networking as well as offering both synchronous and asynchronous activities. However, it is extremely hard to break from tradition and academic conferences are vital rites of passage for young researchers by having a conference paper accepted. 

This week I enjoyed reading a couple of articles by Catherine Oliver of the London School of Economics. Her article in The Post-pandemic UniversityPost-Pandemic Conferences: Academic networks and changing conference spaces, describes how online conferences have the potential to become more inclusive but that there is a risk that we will return to the the old hierarchies and privileges. Changing traditions involves so much more than simply creating the potential for change, there has to be an awareness that things need to change. The academic conference model is tried, tested and comfortable. After the pandemic most people will want to return to their comfort zones.

The doors of the academic conference create a boundary that not only produces insiders and outsiders, but also the outsiders within. The doors of the academic conference have opened during Covid-19, but a return to in-person conferences threatens to slam them shut.
There are new opportunities to open up conferences but technology does not automatically bring change. It enables change but the will to change has to be there.  
Conferences are an important space for the making (and breaking) of academic communities. The doors to the academic conference are, in theory, more open than ever. But, with the UK government’s intention to get life “back to normal” by the 21st June 2021, the doors might be about to slam on accessible conferences. Conference hierarchies have not been flattened by the pandemic, but new spaces and opportunities are beginning to emerge. While conferences produce insiders and outsiders, they also allow for radical connections to be made; encounters that are more difficult to replicate at virtual conferences. Online networking comes with a host of new relations and rules. But, as we move to post-pandemic hybrid conferences, we must maintain the momentum to radically reimagine not only our academic spaces, but our academic communities.
Another article by Catherine Oliver, on the LSE's site, Online conferences: opening opportunities or reproducing inequality?, looks at those who are often marginalised in traditional conferences, precarious academics such as doctoral students looking for their first foothold on the academic ladder and researchers without the resources to travel. Many have benefited from this year's online conferences, being able to participate and contribute at very low cost and without the need for travel and lengthy visa applications. Many conferences have seen significant increases in attendance by going online and reducing or even waiving attendance fees. It is important not to forget them in our rush "back to normal".
The same care and attention owed to ‘in-person’ events needs to be paid to the organisation of online academic conferences if they are to be fertile spaces for doing academia differently. As we face uncertain futures, now is not the time to abandon precarious academics but to radically reimagine our knowledge production and communication spaces with accessibility, transparency, and openness at the centre.

There will certainly be a sigh of relief when on-site conferences return and many will flock back to the sense of community and shared experience that they offer. But we must remember that such events are always exclusive and many voices are never heard there. We need to learn from the past year and create more innovative and inclusive online conferences with a much lower threshold for involvement. The traditional conferences may hopefully also widen their scope and allow a variety of forms of participation.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Saying something stupid - giving students time to think

Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

How often do you wish you could delete something you said or at least get a chance to reformulate it? I do almost every day. In conversations and meetings we often make spontaneous comments that were not well formulated or even thought through. In discussion forums I sometimes edit something I wrote in haste, or I write a new statement showing that I have revised my idea. However, in spoken communication or indeed on Twitter it's hard to edit or retract. Once it's out there a remark can fly off into circulation - as many indiscreet celebrities and politicians can confirm. As a result, many people are reluctant to speak in meetings (physical or digital) in fear of saying something that may come back to haunt them in the future. Fear of revealing your vulnerability, that you don't really understand the topic yet and are fumbling for clarity.

Learning is all about changing your mind. New information and arguments mean that we are constantly reforming and refining our opinions. Curiously the media tend to attack politicians who change their mind about an issue seeing it as a sign of weakness instead of realising that we are constantly changing our opinion as new facts and ideas are assimilated. Of course we have very fixed basic principles of what is right and wrong but the rest is flexible. Changing your opinion is a sign that you are learning and can listen to other arguments.

So how can we work with this in teaching? I think it's important to give students time to refine their ideas before they go into a class discussion. If you ask a question in class you are often met with silence. They all have answers but they're not ready to share them yet. If you want a good discussion you need to let them formulate and refine their ideas first in a secure setting. In an online class for example, this can be done by asking everyone to take a pen and paper, turn off cameras and microphones and spend, say, five minutes to write down responses to a question you ask. Then put them in pairs where each partner explains their answer uninterrupted for a couple of minutes and then they briefly discuss these answers. When the class is back together again they can all share their answers anonymously using a polling tool like Mentimeter or AnswerGarden. The ideas have now been refined through pair discussion but it's good to let them appear without names. Then the variety of responses can be the basis of larger group discussions where the group can formulate a new answer that is more mature. Finally we can start a class discussion where the fear of saying something "stupid" has been reduced significantly. This process can also be prepared asynchronously before the online meeting and then letting them discuss in pairs or small groups so that they all have something to contribute to the class discussion.

The main point is to build a foundation for discussion rather than plunging straight in. If we allow for a period of silence before expecting any answers there is a greater chance that more people will contribute. We can't always use the method I explained above but when you ask a question in a meeting or class tell people to think about it for even a couple of minutes before inviting answers. More thoughtful answers are worth a couple of minutes of awkward silence.

PS

Soon after publishing this post I came across a very relevant article by Nikole D. Patson on the same theme: Collaborative Note-taking as an Alternative to Recording Online Sessions.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The power of grades - student resistance to collaborative learning


The concept of the flipped classroom, where lecture input is recorded and classroom meetings focus on discussion and problem-solving, has become extremely popular, not least during the pandemic as a way of making online classes more participatory. However, like all attempts to diverge from traditional practices, there is often opposition, especially from the students who may see new methods as a threat. The key issue seems to be the perceived withdrawal of the teacher from the centre stage as the students are given the freedom to take control of their learning and learn through collaboration. This can be seen as an unwelcome imposition by many students and leads to insecurity since traditional roles and models have been disturbed.

This sense of threat is clearly described in an article in the journal Teaching in Higher EducationWhat does it mean to do teaching? A qualitative study of resistance to Flipped Learning in a higher education context (sadly not open access). It describes the implementation of a flipped learning approach in a teacher training programme at Macquarie University in Australia. The main benefit of flipped learning is that by switching the delivery of content to recorded lectures and demonstrations this will enable teachers to devote contact time to providing timely feedback, guiding, challenging and encouraging. The problem is that students have high expectations of the teacher as performer and see the flipped model as an abdication of responsibility. The stand-up lecture is seen as the definition of teaching - that's what teachers do. When that is withdrawn, the students feel cheated.

As indicated in the title of this paper, the Flipped Learning trial was met with resistance – in fact vociferous resistance. As I analysed data from the study and also reflected on my engagement with students during the delivery of the flipped course, a ubiquitous refrain emerged. Students drew persistent attention to an absence. In absenting from the traditional stand and deliver tutorial presence, I had denied my student’s access to the sage on the stage. My student’s indicated fear of missing out on critical information, discomfort of engaging in core content in asynchronous environments and resentment of what they understood as my absence in the tutorial (i.e. I was no longer sage on the stage but a guide to the side).

The students saw the method as at best interesting, but most commonly useless, time-consuming and confusing. The traditional lecture-based approach is seen as a way of guaranteeing that the necessary course material has been "covered" and that the students know what they have to learn for the exam.

The need to get the best exam grades to enhance future job prospects is the hard currency of higher education and pedagogic innovation sometimes clashes with these very pragmatic needs. This clash is demonstrated in another interesting article: Mediating Students’ Fixation with Grades in an Inquiry-Based Undergraduate Biology Course. Here students on a year one course in biology at Borealis University were studied as they worked through a redesigned course based on inquiry-based learning. Instead of the traditional lecture-based format, the students were expected to collaborate to investigate the main topics and reflect on the process.

... the curriculum required students to work cooperatively in groups to design and execute experiments that are authentically novel, gather and analyze data, and present their findings orally and in writing. Evaluative criteria included rubrics for transferred skills, and summative assessments for acquisition and application. Scientific concepts of uncertainty, peer review, and self-reflection were explicit parts of the design.
This approach has been shown to lead to deeper learning as well as learning vital skills of search skills, source criticism, collaboration and self-reflection, but the results show a serious mismatch between the teachers' well planned approach and the students' perception of teaching. As in the first example, the students were vociferous in their criticism of the course methods and were especially critical that the experiment seriously threatened their chances of getting the top grades they need to progress in their career path. The teacher expected them to work things out for themselves and that was seen as an abdication of responsibility - the teacher is expected to go through the syllabus and make it clear to students exactly what they need to know to get a top grade.

Instructors who did not give explicit directions or answer questions directly were perceived as obstructionist. One student framed her professor’s response to her repeated requests for directions as adversarial, saying, “[The instructor] said, ‘You’re not gonna have a step by step. You need to figure it out.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not paying tuition to figure it out myself.’”

The article concludes that the extrinsic motivation of grades has a negative effect on the intrinsic motivation needed for an inquiry-based approach to succeed. The inquiry-based approach was designed to enhance student autonomy but the effect was the opposite - students felt cast adrift and powerless whereas in the traditional setting they felt more autonomous because it was clear what they had to do to achieve desired results. It's hard to be creative in a world governed by grades.

The key takeaway here is that any changes in course design have to be clearly communicated to the students and they need to know why the changes have been made and how it will benefit them. In this case the student expectations were completely at odds with the teachers' methodology. Maybe if you want to implement more collaborative methods you should introduce them in stages though the first year, slowly working towards collaborative learning rather than throwing the students in at the deep end. This means that all teachers in a programme have agreed on this progress and that each course is part of a progression towards greater autonomy and active learning.

References

Wilson, K. (2020) What does it mean to do teaching? A qualitative study of resistance to Flipped Learning in a higher education context, Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1822312

DeFeo, D.J., Tran, T.C. & Gerken, S. Mediating Students’ Fixation with Grades in an Inquiry-Based Undergraduate Biology Course. Sci & Educ 30, 81–102 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00161-3


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Mind your language - the problems of English as default

Photo by Nothing Ahead from Pexels

English is the default language of international communication but at the same time this puts native speakers in an extremely privileged position. Most international conferences feature keynotes by native English speakers and these voices tend to be prominent in most workshops and seminar sessions. Those whose command of English is less than perfect tend to sit quietly and listen. It would be interesting to see a study of whether active participation is directly linked to confidence in English. Even those whose English is extremely proficient may have trouble understanding the native speakers who often use idioms  or jokes and cultural references that only native speakers will be familiar with. I have often listened to speeches and wondered if anyone else in the hall understood the highly culturally specific reference made by the speaker. It's not enough to simply be proficient at English, you need to learn an entire culture.

This is illustrated by the opening of an article in KQEDTower Of Babble: Nonnative Speakers Navigate The World Of 'Good' And 'Bad' English.

Picture this: A group of nonnative English speakers is in a room. There are people from Germany, Singapore, South Korea, Nigeria and France. They're having a great time speaking to each other in English, and communication is smooth. And then an American walks into the room. The American speaks quickly, using esoteric jargon ("let's take a holistic approach") and sports idioms ("you hit it out of the park!"). And the conversation trickles to a halt.

I've had similar experiences when I was learning Swedish many years ago. We non-native speakers could have very good discussions because we had all learned the same vocabulary and grammar, but when a Swede entered the conversation we suddenly got tongue-tied. They used expressions we didn't recognise and spoke so quickly. No-one wanted to reveal their limitations. 

The article gives several examples of how non-native speakers can be excluded or marginalised and the main point is that native speakers should learn to adapt their language to the audience they are speaking to. This doesn't mean simplifying, but being able to recognise idioms and references that the audience cannot be expected to grasp. English speakers who have never tried to learn another language are often insensitive to this and often speak as they would to their colleagues at home not realising how they are failing to connect with the audience.

The tests that non-native English speakers need to pass to gain access to international work are also unfairly discriminatory according to the article. They test a very particular form of English and people who have an excellent command of the language for the work they do can fail tests like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) because they haven't grasped the finer points of written academic English or indeed the differences between American and British English.

The test also requires making a clear choice between British and American spelling and vocabulary. That "can trip up people whose English comes from various sources" — say, a third from British textbooks and two-thirds from American movies.

Indeed, the differences between American and British English are becoming increasingly blurred especially in the UK where American media and culture are so prevalent. I'm sure you'll find a mix of the two in my writing. Is this worth testing today? What matters if whether the candidate has the level of English to do their job. According to Lithuanian journalist Daiva Repečkaitė:

"As the pandemic rages," she said, "I worry that there might be countless refugee doctors and nurses who just haven't read enough Shakespeare or haven't practiced enough multiple-choice, fill-in exercises to pass these tests in English-speaking countries." Especially at a time when the burden of COVID-19 weighs heavily on the world, Repečkaitė says, we all suffer when skilled professionals like doctors are prevented from helping people.

Linguistic integration is a two-way process and native speakers need to learn to adapt their language in international contexts. Avoid unnecessary idioms, references and jokes, speak a little more slowly and clearly and your message will be clear. Otherwise the audience may still give polite applause but they will not have understood your message. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Escaping from the exam hall

Traditions are so hard to break and one of the most entrenched is the proctored written examination. Writing for hours in a silent hall with only your memory to help you has been a rite of passage for generations of students all over the world; my own student years were dominated by these stressful events. The exam halls have been empty for over a year now but the problem of how to examine large groups of students online has lead to much stress and debate. Many have questioned the value of high-stakes summative examination; what valuable career skills are we actually testing in the exam hall? The problem is finding an alternative that will work with large student cohorts and can minimise the risk of cheating.

Interest is growing in more authentic assessment methods such as projects, case studies and portfolios, but these all involve major shifts in course design and teaching practice. Teachers who have always used proctored exams need training and time to reorganise their courses around alternative assessment methods and students will also need to be convinced of the benefits. In a recent article, a teacher here in Sweden described how he carries out one-to-one interviews with all students as an examination method, even with classes of over 200 (read article in Swedish). Each interview takes 15-20 minutes and if that seems like a lot he claimed that correcting written papers took roughly the same time per student. An interview is more personal and makes cheating extremely difficult and an experienced teacher gets a good picture of the student's ability in that time. 

This however is an exceptional option and most teachers have chosen solutions that try to emulate the exam hall. A common makeshift solution is where all students log into Zoom and are then monitored via their webcams and microphones. There are plenty of digital examination tools that will lock down the student's computer for the duration of the exam but the most controversial solution has been to use the remote proctoring solutions offered by companies like Proctorio, ProctorU and ExamSoft. These solutions involve remote monitoring of students, AI analysis of facial expressions, keystrokes, mouse clicks and registration of any suspicious activities in the student's room (someone entering the room). The integrity and privacy issues of this kind of surveillance and the question of what the companies do with all that data has been well covered in the past year.

However, it is tempting for a university to opt into remote proctoring since it fits in so well with traditional examination. Remote proctoring allows teachers to continue using their summative examinations and the alternatives all seem to demand extra work and retraining, something most already over-worked teachers will object to. A good example of an institution that was brave enough to avoid remote proctoring and help teachers make the transition to authentic examination is described in  an article by a group from the University of Michigan–DearbornWhat Happens When You Close the Door on Remote Proctoring? Moving Toward Authentic Assessments with a People-Centered Approach. Despite pressure to implement remote proctoring they decided to focus on changing their approach to assessment and examination by supporting teachers in their transition. The article explains their rationale for this move and describes the support process that included weekly practical workshops to work through new methods. To lessen the teachers' workload they hired a numbered of specially trained graders to help with the more time-consuming assessment of the new examination methods. The initiative is not complete and they have not completed a transition to authentic assessment but the new approach is gaining acceptance. In conclusion they offer the following advice.

In our experience, leaders such as educational developers, instructional designers, academic technologists, department chairs, and deans will need to be prepared to extensively support faculty during the transition. Many instructors have been using proctored exams for their entire careers and see them as essential to the teaching and learning process. Even as teaching and learning professionals may be eager to see instructors drop high-stakes exams all together, it is important to recognize that changing a long-held teaching practice can feel destabilizing and will likely bring some unforeseen challenges and resistance from instructors (Smith, 2020). Monetary resources saved from the refusal of remote proctoring services can be redirected to invest in ongoing faculty development on assessment and other teaching-related topics. We believe our investment in people, rather than remote proctoring services, will be more robust to the inevitable changes in learning formats and technology that are to come.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Great expectations and how to manage them

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Isn't amazing that some people always misunderstand your most carefully planned and explained activities? What seems crystal clear in your head seems unclear and messy to others. Often it boils down to assumptions and expectations that are not clearly defined. Each student and teacher enters a course with their own preconceptions and assumptions of what they can expect and what is expected of them. It is so easy to think of students as a collective instead of a diverse group of individuals thrown together by chance in your particular course. Their expectations have been formed by previous courses and teachers and it is natural that they expect your course to be similar to the course they took last term. Much has been written about the difficulties of getting students to turn on their cameras in meetings or of students dropping out when group work starts but often it is because they don't see the activity as meaningful. Why is the group work important and why do they need to turn on their cameras? Too often we simply assume that this is obvious. The start of each course is therefore a renegotiation of how we approach the challenges ahead of us. The more explicit this negotiation the greater the likelihood of success. 

This is one of the themes in an article in E-learn magazine by Tom LangstonEngaging Students: An Approach to Solving the Zoom Conundrum. He describes the importance of each class negotiating a code of conduct that isn't simply a case of the students agreeing to the teachers expectations but reaching a mutually acceptable framework. It's also about addressing students' expectations of each other.

When you start teaching a class, it can be easy to highlight who you are and what you might intend to cover over the course of the module. It might also be less often that you explicitly tell the students what you are expecting from them. Even if you do, do they explicitly agree to your “demands” on them? This is where a conversation can help shape what is to come throughout the entire teaching block. If you are explicit about your standards and why you approach things the way you do, there can be no recourse from the students about why they have not held up their part of the agreement. Or you to yours.

Managing expectations is just as relevant on campus as online, though the mismatches are more pronounced in online courses. Another dimension that adds to the expectation mismatch is the increasing diversity of students from traditional young campus students to older lifelong learners with work and families to deal with. Mix in cultural diversity and you have a myriad of expectations and potential for misunderstanding. In today's multi-layered university it is unwise to assume. There is no one magic formula but a constant dialogue and negotiation, offering students a variety of spaces for interaction and collaboration.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Teaching without video meetings

Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

Synchronous meetings in Zoom/Teams/Google Meet have become the default teaching method over the past year but fatigue is setting in and many wonder if we really need to meet this way so often. Lecture sessions can be pre-recorded and discussions can often become more reflective in asynchronous forums or other discussion tools where everyone has time to consider their opinion and not simply react spontaneously as in a synchronous meeting. Could the frequency of video meetings be due to the feeling that that is what we are expected to do? Lots of meetings make everyone feel like they are working hard, but could learning take place just as well, if not better, without them?  

Some answers to these questions are discussed in an interesting article by Lucy Biederman in Inside Higher Ed, Goodbye, Zoom Fatigue. She teaches several classes very successfully without the use of video meetings and gives the following examples:

  • An advanced poetry seminar where students work together during the scheduled course times each week, communicating on Google chat as they do, to create a website that features a deep dive into one significant American poem each week. They collaborated to provide background, context, close readings, writing prompts based on the poem and more.
  • A business and professional writing course taught entirely on Slack, providing students experience with a new-to-them workplace application. Students communicated with me and one another on channels devoted to course topics and through direct messages.
  • An introductory creative writing course where students maintain individual blogs in which they explore course texts and their own writing processes throughout the semester. A page on the learning management system shares every students' blog address. Students create a community of writers by reading and commenting on each other's blogs.
In these examples the students are very active, learning together and interacting. These methods are also more inclusive in that they do not make high demands on bandwidth, devices or time constraints. The process is visible to all and the teacher is able to offer feedback at all stages. It also mirrors how virtual teamwork is conducted in professional life. This approach may not be valid for all subjects and levels but it raises questions around why we are so dependent on synchronous meetings even when many people feel that they are repetitive and uninspiring.

This does not mean that we should stop having video meetings but that we should always consider if they are essential and whether other methods would be more effective. Video lessons, like classroom time, can sometimes give us a sense of activity without really contributing to learning. We need to match each learning outcome to an appropriate method and space and be ready to challenge comfortable traditions.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Drowning in content but what we need is community

CC0 Image created by Catherine Cordasco by @unitednations on Unsplash

Over the past year teachers all over the world have recorded and stored millions of videos, from short instructions to long lectures. Most of them can only be used once but are seldom deleted and as a result many institutions' servers are bursting with terabytes of video content. Storage is not as cheap as many think and as servers fill up we need to think of ways to free up space for more valuable content. Many institutions including my own compress and save seldom used content in archives but as production levels continue to mushroom we need to start asking why we need to produce all this. Why do teachers put so much time and effort into content production? 

One obvious solution is sharing such material as OER (open educational resources) and allowing others to reuse and adapt the material. Why record a lecture when there are hundreds of similar lectures already freely available? I'm sure you can be a good teacher without ever recording a lecture of your own and spending time focusing on facilitation, tutorials and feedback. But sadly OER has still not become mainstream despite greater awareness, according to a American recent survey reported by Campus technologyFaculty Awareness of OER Has Increased for 5 Years Straight, Yet Adoption Is Flat.

While OER awareness went up, for the first time in the past decade, adoption of OER as required course materials did not increase. Why? The researchers hypothesized that with last year's pandemic-induced shift from face-to-face to online instruction, faculty time was monopolized by pedagogical concerns. "[Flat OER adoption rates] may have been the result of the considerable amounts of time faculty had to put into converting their courses, leaving them no time to invest in the exploration and evaluation of new materials,"

Teachers feel bound by tradition to deliver content and the students expect the teacher to deliver content and it's very hard to escape from this mindset. Even if we know there is open content available we feel that we are not doing our job if we use other's material. If it's fine to recommend other people's books and articles it should be okay to recommend their recorded lectures.

This is reinforced in a recent article by David Kellermann in Times Higher EducationAcademics aren’t content creators, and it’s regressive to make them so. The pandemic has forced everyone to become video editors and generally not very good ones.

Suddenly academics became video editors – mostly bad ones – and our students turned to YouTube, because on YouTube you can get a better explanation of the same thing (for free I might add). Universities turned from communities of learning and collaboration into B-grade content providers. This is the death march of higher education. Universities are not content providers. Somewhere along this unplanned journey we lost our way.

The main point of this article is that instead of producing vast volumes of content that already exist the university should focus on creating communities, providing context rather than content. The campus itself creates a sense of belonging with spaces that facilitate meetings, discussions and networking as well as having a strong identity in its architecture and setting. The article quotes Eli Noam: the strength of the future physical university lies less in pure information and more in college as a community. 

Today's online spaces lack these advantages and tend to be a collection of closed silos. The lessons of the pandemic must include the need to develop more social, interactive and engaging digital spaces that can complement the campus spaces. The endless production of video content is a distraction from this crucial challenge.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Hybrid teaching - the new normal or yet another stress factor?

As universities prepare for a post-pandemic future, there is a lot of discussion about hybrid or even hyflex teaching where classes are held both on campus and online and students are able to choose how they wish to access the class. Hyflex even includes the option of being able to participate completely asynchronously but with exactly the same learning outcomes and examination requirements. It sounds great but doing this well will demand considerable effort and there are many pitfalls to beware of. Few classrooms are equipped for hybrid teaching for a start. Many institutions have already started converting classrooms for greater flexibility, generally involving the purchase of multiple screens, microphones, cameras and other hardware, much to the delight of the tech industry.

The idea of offering greater flexibility to students is fine but there are also dangers of taking a simplistic approach to a complex issue. Hybrid teaching is nothing new and many institutions have been doing it for years. It works relatively well for traditional large-scale lecturing since the students are largely passive regardless of location. The problems emerge when you add more interactivity. The classroom students then tend to dominate the discussion sessions and online students are often reduced to passive spectators since they are not as visible and it is hard to get the teacher's attention. Managing group work both in class and online is quite demanding on the teacher, especially if you want to have mixed campus and online groups. 

This all adds to the stress levels of already overstretched teachers after the past year's intensive pivot to online education, discussed in an article by teacher Amanda White in Times Higher EducationUpskill fatigue: will hybrid and hyflex tip academics over the edge? Despite her experience in online education, she admits that the past year has been very tiring and is worried that poorly implemented hybrid solutions will put even greater burdens on teachers. New teaching methods and skills will be required to ensure pedagogical quality and avoid falling into the trap of simply offering dual mode lecturing. Some institutions will be able to install expensive technology and provide essential support for their use but most will not, leaving teachers to rely on their multitasking skills, or lack of them.

While hybrid may seem like a panacea for the educational limbo we find ourselves in, implementing it poorly as a stopgap measure is likely to cause our educators more harm than good. Having educators without adequate training, learning design assistance, facilities and workload support is likely to pave the way for activities that do not engage the class, leaving online students cut adrift as observers.

Large lecture-based classes, often for first year students, are a tempting area for hybrid adaptation and Tony Bates warns against this in a new post, Teaching large lecture classes online in the fall? He advises universities to take the chance to change the model of teaching first year students and simply drop the large-scale lecture format except for a few exceptional occasions. Instead of lecturing, teachers need to help students find the information themselves and assess it.

When an instructor prepares a lecture, at least in first year, they are often doing work that the students could be doing: searching for information, raising issues, making a strong case or argument, coming to conclusions. These are skills that students increasingly need to develop themselves.
He also suggests that many first year classes could be smaller allowing for more collaborative group work and a teacher role more focused on facilitation and tutoring. If that is not possible then a more interactive and collaborative approach can be applied by a better use of prerecorded shorter lectures and a focus on asynchronous collaboration in the learning management system. In all cases we need to redesign our courses and review what technology we need. 
Without substantial re-design, moving large lectures online will increase the workload and stress on instructors, and/or will lead to poorer results for students. So now is the time for administrators and Deans to start asking whether we should be moving the large lecture classes online, or instead, finding better ways to deal with first year courses.
So should campus teaching become hybrid by default and if so, how do we deal with practical workshops, lab sessions and so on? I think we need to look carefully at which spaces to use for different types of activity. Sometimes we will have to insist on students coming to campus for essential hands-on training in fields like medicine, engineering, visual arts, music etc. Flexibility is fine but in some cases it can be dangerous and students need to be aware that although they can study online for some of the course there will be obligatory on-site training. At the same time we will definitely move to more hybrid solutions but they will demand course redesign and professional development for teachers if they are going to succeed.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when - the future of international conferences

Photo by Andrei Stratu on Unsplash

The future of international conferences is uncertain now that we have realised that you can have very productive meetings without the financial costs of travelling and accommodation as well as the environmental damage of hundreds of delegates flying in from all over the world. On-site conferences are always exclusive events due to costs, travel restrictions, linguistic barriers and accessibility issues. Only delegates from wealthy organisations can attend and those are the voices heard. Of course a digital event is not the same thing but that is hardly the point. We cannot go on meeting like this, for the sake of our planet's future.

These issues are raised in a new article by Holly J. Niner and Sophia N. Wassermann in the journal Frontiers in Marine ScienceBetter for Whom? Leveling the Injustices of International Conferences by Moving Online. They describe how the 6th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC6) was re-arranged as a digital conference and the effects this had on participation and delegate experience. Not surprisingly they increased the global impact of the event considerably; attendance increased by 74% compared to the previous on-site event with a significantly wider range of countries represented. Many of the delegates would not have been able to participate if the event had been on-site. They raise the value of benefits such as flexibility, convenience, the availability of recorded sessions and other on-line resources, lower cost and networking opportunities. The majority found the digital experience better than expected and were appreciative of being able to be part of such an event. However, many looked forward to attending in person for the next conference but admitted that a hybrid format would be able to offer an attractive alternative for those unable to attend in person.

Attending a digital conference also raises the issue of workplace culture. If you are in the office you are expected to perform your regular tasks and it is hard to simply refuse on the grounds that you are attending a conference just now. Many who attend on-site conferences enjoy the opportunity to escape the pressures of the workplace for a couple of days and add an automatic reply on the work e-mail account. It's not so easy if you're physically in the office.

Several survey respondents indicated that they struggled to “set aside” time to engage with the conference, owing to competing work demands that they were unable to step away from when attending a conference at home, instead of a location-based conference. Conversely, others enjoyed the flexibility of being able to dip in and out of the conference and to fit attendance around their commitments, many of which could prevent or challenge in-person attendance.
A move to online conferences will of course threaten many businesses, especially hotels, conference centres travel agencies and airlines. My own university has saved around €4 million over the past year in reduced travel and hotel costs. Organising an online event still involves a lot of planning and organisation as well as costs for platform, studios and production but the reduced costs mean that attendance fees can be reduced significantly and thus widen participation.

The big question is whether or not a return to the on-site format is at all desirable and the authors focus on a factor they call the privilege of preferring an in-person option. It's great to meet in person, if you can afford it. But so many people do not have that option.
This year has highlighted that online conferences can be valuable, inclusive and an opportunity to address many of the moral dilemmas posed by traditional conference models, particularly for the marine conservation community and others working in the fields of environmental or sustainability science and management. If organizations neglect the lessons learned from the pandemic and fail to embrace the opportunities of remote conference attendance, they knowingly exclude people. On an individual level, those of us able to attend a conference no matter where it is held should be cognizant of the fact that the option to prefer an in-person conference is predicated on the ability to attend one.

After the pandemic we have three options ahead of us: to rush back to the traditional formats and continue as before, to make some adjustments to the traditional format such as making some sessions available online in a hybrid model or to radically change how we meet and exchange ideas with a focus on developing collaborative and accessible online spaces. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Hooked on lecturing?

Photo by Alexandre Pellaes on Unsplash

Even if we know that lecturing is not a very effective way of teaching, it is so hard to stop doing it. I find myself often in the absurd position of lecturing about why we need to move away from lecturing and every time I fall into the trap I promise to be better next time. My excuse is that people ask me to lecture so that's what I do. The problem is that I do enjoy it and I think I do it quite well and that makes it even harder to kick the habit. Sometimes I think I have made the session open to discussion and tried to stimulate interaction, but afterwards I realise in shame that it was 90% monologue, again. Of course I also run workshops and use lots of tools and methods to increase interaction but I keep falling back into traditional formats. How to escape from an irresistible force?

When educators get together in conferences and seminars we tend to give lectures on research work or methodology with pretty traditional questions-and-answers sessions. I once attended a conference on innovative pedagogy that consisted of many long and rather dull lectures from experts in the field. There are exceptions, but we seem to have great difficulty escaping the gravitational pull of tradition. It's what people expect teachers to do, especially at university, and it's so easy to oblige. A well-structured and lively lecture can be inspiring but the majority fall short. We try to throw in a few polls or buzz group discussions but in the end it's still a lecture.

Do you have this problem or have you managed to do a lecture detox? When you get an invitation to give a lecture at a big conference what do you say? 


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Avoiding Zoom fatigue and finding new ways to collaborate online

Photo by Surface on Unsplash

Many of us spend several hours a day in online meetings and the term Zoom fatigue has become a popular topic of discussion. Our extreme dependence on video meeting platforms is of course due to the exceptional times we live in and when we are able to meet face-to-face again the number of online meetings will no doubt decrease, though still much more frequent than before the pandemic. But what is missing in these online sessions? We can certainly see each other, smile, laugh, gesticulate and interact but what makes it all so tiring and rather repetitive?

A new study by Jeremy N. Bailenson of Stanford University, Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue, has investigated the factors behind Zoom fatigue and offers some remedies (see also a summary of the report in an article in New Atlas, Stanford study into “Zoom Fatigue” explains why video chats are so tiring. Bailenson highlights four main issues:

  • Eye-gaze at a close distance. We see a gallery of faces, many complete strangers, looking at us all the time. This would never happen in a physical meeting and can be rather disconcerting. Are they really looking at me and what are they thinking? Do I look all right or do they notice that my hair is a bit untidy or there's a pile of junk on the desk behind me?
  • Cognitive load. We often exaggerate our non-verbal signals to make them clear, like nodding very deliberately or looking straight into the camera. It's impossible to turn and smile at a colleague or exchange a knowing glance when a common issue is mentioned. We also have chat messages and other communication tools to deal with.
  • All-day mirror. We spend a lot of time looking at ourselves and being very aware of our appearance. This is a distraction and something we never have to deal with in physical meetings. One remedy for this is to cancel the self-view option in the platform. 
  • Reduced mobility. In physical meetings we sometimes stand up or stretch our legs for a few minutes but in online meetings we generally sit still for long periods, gazing at faces or slideshows. We also tend to sit very close to the computer camera and this adds to the strain. Maybe if we sometimes switched to audio-only we could all move around while we discuss and thus take a break from the gallery gaze.

But with Zoom, all people get the front-on views of all other people nonstop. This is similar to being in a crowded subway car while being forced to stare at the person you are standing very close to, instead of looking down or at your phone. On top of this, it is as if everyone in the subway car rotated their bodies such that their faces were oriented toward your eyes. And then, instead of being scattered around your peripheral vision, somehow all those people somehow were crowded into your fovea where stimuli are particularly arousing (Reeves et al., 1999). For many Zoom users, this happens for hours consecutively.

We also need to realise that we all need some recovery time before entering the next meeting. Although you can feel super-efficient by stacking online meetings one after the other, you will be much more efficient if you schedule at least 10 minutes between those meetings to simulate the time you would spend walking from one physical meeting to the next. Get up, go outside for a few minutes and mentally tune in to the next task.

So what's the alternative to the talking heads format? Maybe we need to stop gazing at each other and do things together. A post by David WhiteSpatial collaboration: how to escape the webcam, introduces the concept of spatial collaboration, where we focus not on our faces on the screen but on interacting in a shared space such as a whiteboard, collaborative documents like Google Drive or a storyboard like Padlet, Mural or Miro. We can all write or draw on these spaces and the focus is more on the activity and collaboration than our faces. One simple but effective method is how to create a discussion with the help of a simple drawing of a table and names around it.

My suggestion was to draw a very simple diagram of a table (just a square) and place each of the participants’ names around it for each group. We then shared this simple ‘map’ into the non-space of the platform and asked the groups to go clockwise around the table. This was an easy way to establish the order the discussion should go in, but I also noticed that there was suddenly a greater sense of togetherness and place. You could imagine who you were sat next to or opposite, and while this didn’t change the functionality of the technology it did change the psychology of it. It didn’t take much to help people imagine themselves into a shared location.
This spatial collaboration does not have to be noisy to be effective. You can have very rewarding silent collaboration (see my earlier post on this), at least for a few minutes, thus providing variation and reducing fatigue.  

Of course it's great to see each other, but maybe not as much as we do now. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Keynotes on demand


I have been invited to speak at many online conferences and webinars over the past year and although I always try to adapt my content to the audience, I often feel I'm just playing variations on a theme. I can imagine how it feels for the major speakers in the field and how many invitations they get each week to speak on much the same theme each time. In the past this meant extensive travel to international conferences, but today you can tour the world from the comfort of your own home.

One of the experts in demand just now is Tony Bates and he has announced an innovative approach to keynoting. He has an impressive track record in digital learning and despite "retiring" a few years ago he has maintained an impressive level of production with a very valuable blog, reports, lectures and one of the best books on online education, Teaching in a Digital Age (available as an open access book, practising what he preaches). Being in such demand it becomes hard to say no even if such appearances sometimes demand very uncomfortable working hours. You have to draw the line somewhere, but how to do that without disappointing?

So his innovative solution, described in a post, Five free keynotes on online learning for streaming into virtual conferences, is to record five different keynote speeches and offer them to any conference organisers under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA). They can be accessed from Commonwealth of Learning’s online institutional repository for learning resources and publications, OAsis, and can even be downloaded. This means conferences can include a major speaker as keynote without any live links, though he can make himself available for a personal Q&A session afterwards, either synchronously or if the time is inconvenient, asynchronously.

Here are direct links to the lectures:
Could this become more common in the future? Of course there are advantages of appearing live but since the purpose of a keynote is for inspiration it is feasible to use recorded lectures and focus the live sessions on discussion and interaction. An on-site conference has high profile keynote speakers as a major incentive to attend with the attraction of possibly meeting that person in a mingle session later on. In an online conference that advantage is largely lost so maybe we'll see more virtual keynotes that act as catalysts for more active discussion instead.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

You are being watched - the rise of educational surveillance


The use of artificial intelligence in education seems increasingly to be more about surveillance and control than fostering learning. During the past year there has been considerable concern about the ethics of remote proctoring where students were subject to constant surveillance by webcam, microphone and analysis of keystrokes and mouse clicks during online exams, see for example an article in Inside E-learning, Learning or surveillance? What students say about edtech and covid-19. Any unexpected activity in the student's behaviour (eg "abnormal eye movement") or movement in the room is detected and may lead to disqualification. Not only are such methods highly intrusive it is unclear what happens to all the data collected by the responsible companies. There must be better ways of assessing a student's ability than this.

If remote proctoring raises concerns then the next example sends shivers down the spine. An article on the site Rest of the worldChina is home to a growing market for dubious “emotion recognition” technology, describes how classrooms are equipped with face recognition technology and each student's facial reactions are constantly monitored. 
Every second, the surveillance cameras installed in each classroom at Niulanshan First Secondary School in Beijing snap a photo. The images are then fed into the Classroom Care System, an “emotion recognition” program developed by Hanwang Technology. It identifies each student’s face and analyzes their behavior: a student rifling through their desk might be labeled “distracted,” while another looking at the board would be labeled “focused.” Other behavioral categories include answering questions, interacting with other students, writing, and sleeping. Teachers and parents receive a weekly report through a mobile app, which can be unsparing: In one, a student who had answered just a single question in his English class was called out for low participation — despite the app recording him as “focused” 94% of the time.

Imagine then coupling this with analysis of every mouse click and keystroke and we have total control, or rather the illusion of control since the conclusions made by AI may be based on in-built biases (like the student called for low participation in the example above). The idea that algorithms can accurately assess a student's emotions by analysing facial expression is ridiculous. We all know how hard it is to read another person's face. But once you get AI making decisions it becomes almost impossible to question them since we tend to see computers as impartial and infallible. No matter how questionable such technologies may be there's big money to be made. The article claims that the emotional recognition market may be worth more than $33 billion by 2023. Money talks. For further serious concerns about facial recognition, see an article in Mashable9 scary revelations from 40 years of facial recognition research.

There are, of course, positive applications of AI in education but the key question in all cases is who owns the data, on what terms and do the students have the right to be forgotten? We all need to be very cautious about letting these technologies into the classroom.