Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The year of the dumbphone?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Remember when a mobile phone was only used for voice calls and text messaging? No apps, no social media, no alerts, no mobile payments, no cameras, no music and no games unless you count primitive ones like Snake (remember that?). A few weeks ago I wrote about a renewed interest in low-tech solutions like hand-crank radios (Digital vulnerability) and now I've just read a news post from BBC about a surge in sales of basic unsmart mobile phones, Not smart but clever? The return of 'dumbphones'. It seems that an increasing number of people, many of whom are in the 25-35 year old bracket, are buying basic mobiles. The article claims that sales of so-called dumbphones reached one billion worldwide last year so it's certainly not just a niche market. 

The reasons for dumbing down vary but in general people want less clutter and distraction in their lives. They realise that they are addicted to their mobiles, checking them every few minutes in case they miss something. Mobiles steal enormous amounts of our daily lives. Our mobiles are also the ultimate surveillance device, sending data about our location, purchases, conversations, searches, contacts, health and more and selling that data to just about anyone willing to pay for it. So many are opting for a less connected life and the freedom it offers. According to Professor Sandra Wachter, a senior research fellow in artificial intelligence at Oxford University:

It makes sense that some of us are now looking for simpler technologies and think that dumbphones might offer a return to simpler times. It might leave more time to fully concentrate on a single task and engage with it more purposefully. It might even calm people down. Studies have shown that too much choice can create unhappiness and agitation.

I can certainly relate to the fears of smartphone surveillance and the addiction to checking social media all day. The problem is that we have already entered the age of the obligatory smartphone. Here in Sweden it is becoming almost impossible to function in society without one. Most public transport requires a mobile app to buy tickets and check timetables. Travelling without the app is just about possible but you still need a bank card (no cash allowed) and you pay extra for being old fashioned. Most smaller transactions are done by a mobile app (even at a local market). The national bank identity system for verifying all types of payment runs on a mobile app. Offline banking is actively discouraged. Your covid vaccination pass is of course stored in your mobile and so the list goes on. Basically without a smartphone you are seriously limited in what you can do. It's nice to see that many people want to reduce their smartphone addiction but I suspect that they have become too embedded in today's society. The smartphone is no longer an option, it's compulsory. That in itself is a cause for concern.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Hybrid classrooms - impressive solutions but are we asking the right questions?

Photo by Col·legi de Farmacèutics de Barcelona on Unsplash

Educational institutions all over the world are busy redesigning their classrooms and buying lots of hardware to facilitate hybrid teaching. The pandemic has revealed a need to offer more flexibility in how courses are run, offering students the choice of whether to attend classes on site or online. Many institutions have been doing this for many years but suddenly hybrid has become mainstream and there is a frenzy of ed tech investment. The challenge is to ensure that the online students are not simply passive observers but can participate as fully as their counterparts on site. This inevitably involves more advanced technology in the classroom with multiple screens, microphones and cameras so that everyone can be seen and heard clearly and that slideshows, whiteboards and collaborative tools can be easily shared. 

Some excellent examples of hybrid classrooms are described in a detailed post by Zac WoolfittThe future is bright - the future is hybrid. He describes how four European universities are redesigning their classrooms for a hybrid future: University of Amsterdam, KU Leuven, Imperial College London and Oulu University of Applied Sciences. All are very impressive and I urge you to read the article to get the details. Online students are visible on large screens, cameras automatically focus on the speaker in the classroom and high quality microphones ensure that everyone is heard. Not only have they upgraded their larger lecture theatres to cope with hundreds of students at a time but they have also equipped smaller classrooms and group rooms for hybrid sessions. Some solutions are like sophisticated TV studios and each lesson will require careful planning between teachers and production staff. Others are less complex but still demand that teachers rethink their teaching to adapt to the technical affordances.

However, all of them admit that they have still not found the best solution and that hybrid teaching still presents many challenges. Complex technical solutions demand qualified staff to assist the teacher, or require teachers to be well trained in using the equipment; resulting in an almost impossible juggling act trying to focus on both teaching and on managing the technology.

Finding ways to combine collaboration online and on campus remains a challenge. Those presenting here thought that there is more hybrid collaboration than every before. The solutions provided currently work, but it is expected the demands and context will change in a few years. Some have only been running Hybrid classrooms for less than a year. The feedback from students will provide lots of input. Creating really good hybrid breakout rooms has not yet been achieved yet and requires improvements in the technology. For some students, it is not easy to learn remotely, and they want to be in class, in contact with fellow students.

They are all impressive initiatives that aim at providing all students with a high quality experience no matter how they choose to participate. However, I wonder if we are asking the right questions here. These solutions are expensive and unrealistic for many institutions, especially in less developed countries. I also wonder if we place too much importance on synchronous events. No matter how much technology you have in the classroom, any gathering of more than 30 students means that the majority of them will not say a word during the session and that interaction will be limited. Large lecture theatres, no matter how much technology you buy, will always favour lecturing with the teacher in focus. Of course there is value in gathering all students in a synchronous event from time to time. It reinforces a sense of community and common purpose. But I would like to see a greater emphasis on group work, investigating, analysing and solving problems, and this is done in a combination of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration rather than in large class meetings. Maybe the hybrid classroom does not need to be so sophisticated. Shorter focused hybrid sessions to set up the task and then let the students work together in hybrid groups. This requires lots of flexible group rooms on campus but those require often only a screen, webcam and microphone. Learning to work in virtual teams to solve problems and find solutions are also vital skills to learn for most professions in a world where international travel is likely to become increasingly unfeasible.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Challenging assumptions about learning

Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

Do you have a clear idea of how you learn and what teaching methods help you most? I certainly don't and I'm close to retirement. However we continually ask students to evaluate their courses and draw conclusions from their feedback. Student course evaluations form the basis for future course design and administration but I wonder if we are asking the right questions. 

This is a topic discussed in a post by Zach GroshellDo Students Have a Good Idea of What Helps Them Learn? We are asking them to evaluate a complex process that they have limited insight into and often the benefits of good teaching become clear months or even years later. He refers to a recent study, On students’ (mis)judgments of learning and teaching effectiveness. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(2), 137–151), that investigates the hidden biases and subjective impressions behind student course evaluations. They found for example a mismatch between what the students thought they had learned and their test results. They preferred traditional content-rich lectures to more active sessions despite studies showing that active participation leads to deeper learning. They were also highly influenced by subjective perceptions of the teacher's status, enthusiasm, gender, ethnic background and accent (as we all are). I hasten to add that we are all subject to these biases.

As we have seen, empirical research has provided a wealth of results showing that students are poor evaluators of their own learning, and that their subjective impressions of teaching effectiveness are vulnerable to many biases that are unrelated to teaching and learning… Does this make it risky for instructors to use effective learning techniques? Particularly early in their careers and in teaching-focused positions, instructors may find themselves faced with the difficult decision of whether to incorporate teaching practices that gain them recognition as effective instructors, even if such practices do not positively impact students’ learning.
This poses a tricky question to teachers - do you teach for student satisfaction or teach for learning, even if it may lead to dissatisfaction and poor evaluations? An ambitious teacher who decides to promote active learning and student collaboration runs the risk of students misunderstanding their pedagogy and even a reprimand from the head of department when the poor evaluations emerge. Most of us can remember a teacher we hated at the time but with hindsight realise had pushed and challenged us to a higher level of understanding. What we think we want is not always what we need.

On a similar theme of assumptions and biases is an article by Perry Samson in Educause Review, Students Often Prefer In-Person Classes . . . Until They Don’t. We often assume that students prefer classroom teaching and student surveys show a clear preference for this. However, in this study the students were offered three levels of participation, the hyflex model of on-site, online or asynchronous interaction. Although they at first preferred to be in class, physical attendance declined as the course went on.
Given reasonable options, students in my class did not prefer the in-person mode of course delivery. In fact, the number of students who physically attended class dropped precipitously to an average of around 20% by mid-semester (see figure 1). At the same time, about one-third of students opted to participate synchronously during class time (see figure 2), with a growing number, reaching about 30%, participating asynchronously. The number of students who didn't participate any given day was relatively consistent throughout the semester at about 15%.
The test results showed that the on-site students performed no better than the others, in fact the first-year students who studied asynchronously (recorded lectures, forum discussion etc) had better results than those who attended classes in person. The study is of course limited and offers no exploration of the students' preferences but it does show that students appreciate the choice of participation modes more than we might assume.

My conclusion here is that we need greater dialogue with students about teaching and learning, explaining in advance why we are using a particular approach and getting them to buy into the method through together discussing rules of engagement and building a framework for feedback and reflection. Expectation management is so important and so pre-course information is so much more than just presenting a syllabus. It's setting an agenda and helping students understand how to succeed.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Digital vulnerability

In the midst of a brutal war in Europe it is very hard to write about educational technology. However, one slightly relevant theme that is emerging is how vulnerable we are today due to our embrace of everything digital. Society has simply taken digital accessibility for granted and become totally dependent on it. Here in Sweden it is virtually impossible to lead a normal life without a smartphone and internet access. Cash has become almost useless and many shops and even banks refuse to accept it. You need to download apps for just about everything - shopping, parking your car, using public transport, booking accommodation, financial transactions etc. 

I read in the paper (yes I still read printed newspapers every day) that sales of survival equipment (water canisters, dried and tinned food, camping stoves) have suddenly soared due to the war and the realisation that it could happen here. There's also a marked increase in the use of cash machines (previously deemed obsolete) with the realisation that a cyber attack would render all our apps and plastic cards useless. Another curious detail is a sharp rise in the sales of basic FM/AM radios, especially those that can run without batteries by winding a handle. I also noted that the BBC is setting up shortwave frequencies to broadcast news to Ukraine if internet access is cut. Luckily video did not quite kill the radio star.

Future trends in education? How about survival skills? I don't mean survival courses in the wilderness (though it might be a good idea too) but being able to use both the digital tools and devices as well as their non-digital counterparts. Can you find your way without GPS and Google? Can you make calculations or write notes on paper? I've seen reports of interesting projects about offering digital educational resources to remote areas without internet or even electricity using solar powered servers with stored resources that can then be shared with devices in a basic wifi network (see earlier post). Many countries have used radio to broadcast school lessons to remote and vulnerable communities during the pandemic (as reported earlier on this blog). In an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world we all need to develop plans B, C and D. 

Digitalisation has benefitted us all but we must be very careful about digitalising everything just because we can. We need to maintain alternatives even it may be costly because one day the digital infrastructure could go down.