Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Conference conclusions part 2

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

Following my previous post I would like to summarise some takeaways from the two conferences I attended recently, NU2022 i Stockholm and EDEN2022 in Tallinn, Estonia. I didn't make detailed notes this time so here is a list of themes that made an impact for me. There were of course many sessions about the perils of hybrid teaching but generally the focus was on improving teaching and learning rather than about using tools and platforms. I don't think that the pandemic has fundamentaly changed education but I do believe that we have finally realised that technology is now fully integrated into all pedagogical discussions. Here are a few themes I noted, in no particular order.

The changing role of the campus.

If we can deliver content, discuss, collaborate and network very well online and in some cases better than on-site the awkward question of the future role of the campus emerges. We need to offer sound reasons for being there and identify the unmissable elements of the campus experience. This is clear for the traditional target group of young students but the benefits are much less clear for the growing ranks of older online students. An interesting perspective on this came from the head of the Stockholm School of Economics who talked about the importance of appealing to all the senses - not just what your campus looks like but also trying to capture the feel, smell, sound and taste. We had an evening event at that institution and saw how they had cooperated with artists to have thought-provoking paintings, photos and sculptures in the corridors and learning spaces.They also ran very popular book circles to emphasize the importance of the humanities even in an economics degree. 

In Tallinn a presentation by a student raised the need for us to develop a coherent digital campus that allows students and teachers to interact, form groups, network and socialise. Today's digital campus consists of closed and often incompatible silos and the presentation showed that during the pandemic lockdown students at Tallinn University had to negotiate 11 different platforms as part of their everyday course work.

Students as partners

Nobel Prize winner Carl Weiman of Stanford University made an interesting online presentation at the Stockholm conference. Not about his research in physics that won him the prize but about the theme of the conference - pedagogical development. What struck me most was the fact that he presented in such down-to-earth terms and stressed the need to have students as partners in the learning process and in course design. Admittedly he was preaching to the converted but he reinforced the advantages of active learning and of peer feedback.

Discussing with a fellow student is more effective than listening to an expert instructor.

Pia Lappalainen, Aalto University in Finland, reinforced this theme by showing evidence for how regular small-scale feedback promoted learning more than detailed summative feedback.

European initiatives for promoting digital literacies

A representative from the European Commission presented news of further initiatives to promote digital literacies in education and in society in general through the updated version of the European Digital Competence Framework for Citizens, version 2.2 and the launch of the European digital education hub. The hub is an ambitious venture to offer professional development for teachers as well as a store of learning resources and lesson plans.
The Digital Education Hub provides sustainable and rigorous support of K-12 students through resources, learning opportunities, and networking. By collaborating with communities, families, and educators, we cultivate equity and inclusion in lifelong learning with technology, focusing especially on learners representing structurally marginalized identities and communities.
Even if there are excellent guidelines and criteria for assessing and developing teachers' digital literacies there are unexpected issues in trying to gain an objective assessment within an institution. Linda Helene Sillat and Mart Laanpere of Tallinn University showed the dangers of self-assessment where some teachers over-estimated their competence levels whilst other did the opposite. Objective tests at the university failed since teachers simply refused to take the tests, seeing it possibly as an affront to their professional abilities and suspecting that poor test results would negatively affect their career opportunities. 

Quality perspectives

Quality in the field of online education is a complex issue. Despite a plethora of quality frameworks (over 100 different frameworks according to Mark Brown of Dublin City University, there is still a reluctance to address the issue in higher education. Maybe this is due to universities being daunted by both the bewildering variety of frameworks and the diversity of overlapping terminology in the field. The question remains of whether quality in the use of technology in education should be assessed as part of the regular educational quality framework or as a separate feature.

My final takeaway was a presentation by Lesley Gourlay of University College London, questioning the use of the word virtual in an educational perspective. This opened up a wider theme that deserves a longer post to itself. I will break new ground on this blog by creating a cliff-hanger. 

To be continued ...


Friday, June 24, 2022

My farewell to on-site conferences - at least as a university employee

Session in the EDEN conference (CC BY Alastair Creelman)

I have just returned home from the last educational conferences of my professional career. I am retiring this summer and any conferences after that will either have to be by invitation or if I feel rich enough to pay it all privately (unlikely). I attended NU2022 in Stockholm, a Swedish national conference on pedagogical development in higher education, and EDEN's (European Distance and E-learning Network) annual conference in Tallinn, Estonia. My next post will discuss some of the issues raised at these conferences but here I will just make some general comments.

I must admit that although I have spent the last few years organising, hosting and participating in many online conferences and meetings, the chance to finally attend an on-site event was very welcome. It was wonderful to meet colleagues, mingle, nibble snacks and do a bit of sightseeing in the evenings. A reminder of days gone by and a nice way to round off my days of university employment. 

One theme I would like to comment on here is that of the role of the online participants and their use of the back channels. Both conferences were billed as hybrid with live streaming of many sessions and the option of a Q&A function or chat to interact with the on-site audience. In the Stockholm conference there were hybrid parallel sessions and although the production was fine there was virtually no input from the online participants. In my two sessions I tried to encourage questions and comments in the chat but sadly nothing came. At EDEN there was a Q&A function in the streaming platform that was used quite often but there was no room for discussion between participants. One interesting feature of the EDEN conference was the inclusion of sessions held exclusively on Zoom. Here, on-site participants, including presenters, had to find a quiet corner to sit in to take part in these sessions so that they were fully online and therefore avoided the risk of the on-site participants dominating the discussion. I did not participate in the Zoom sessions at EDEN but I am sure they were more interactive than the hybrid sessions because everyone was online and had access to chat and microphone. Maybe the conclusion is that the focus in hybrid sessions is almost always on the on-site event and the online participants do not see themselves as full participants. If you really want the online participants to be active then offer fully online sessions.

Both conferences had hashtags for Twitter but only a few participants took advantage of this to share ideas and links. I have always enjoyed the Twitter feeds at conferences because I get so many good reflections and interaction with other participants. It's also great to see non-conference people getting involved, thus widening the reach of the conference. I use Twitter to write reflections, links and quotes and then refer to the feed when I write about the conference later. The next post will do just that. It's sad that the Twitter discussions this time were a bit limited. Are people tired of back channels in general or of Twitter in particular or are people just reluctant to share their ideas?

Then there is the sustainability of on-site conferences. I firmly believe that we cannot continue holding large-scale international on-site conferences if we want to have any environmental credibility, given that most people have to fly to attend. Maybe justifiable if the majority of participants can travel by land. I travelled to Estonia by train and boat but I strongly suspect that the carbon emissions of today's giant ferries may even be higher than travelling by plane. I have not dared to investigate this.

I will try to keep up with future conferences by online participation unless something remarkable happens. But I thoroughly enjoyed this final fling.

Part 2 of this post will follow in the next few days.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The lights are on but there's no one home - the plight of the modern office

Photo by LYCS Architecture on Unsplash

How often do you go to the office these days? It looks like many people have not fully returned to the old commuting routines and are still working from home at least one day a week. We have discovered that a lot of our work can be done just as well if not better from home and the traditional workplace set-up is increasingly being questioned. Many people have realised that they work more efficiently at home away from disturbances and irritation. Online meetings are short and to the point and no one misses the commuting. Some activities are of course best performed in person and the office reinforces a sense of belonging to a community. But if we have found better ways of working, we need to rethink the value of the office or indeed the university campus. What are the unique values of a common physical working environment and when do we have to be there?

An article on VoxWhy the return to the office isn’t working, describes how many organisations are trying to adapt. Some employers have embraced home working or at least a flexible attitude towards it whilst others are demanding on-site working even if they are struggling to justify it.
The reasons the return to the office isn’t working out are numerous. Bosses and employees have different understandings of what the office is for, and after more than two years of working remotely, everyone has developed their own varied expectations about how best to spend their time. As more and more knowledge workers return to the office, their experience at work — their ability to focus, their stress levels, their level of satisfaction at work — has deteriorated. That’s a liability for their employers, as the rates of job openings and quits are near record highs for professional and business services, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The most common argument for being in the office is the interaction with colleagues and opportunities for creative work and synergy. This can apply for some but many workers spend most of their time working individually and any collaboration can be done very well in video meetings, project tools, e-mail and instant messaging. The stock image of a team working creatively around a table with post-its all over the place simply does not correspond with what most people do in the office. The challenge for employers is to find convincing reasons to come to the office, activities that must be done in-person and with clear rewards. 
For many office workers, the current state of affairs just isn’t working out. So they’re doing what they can to make their experience of work better, whether that means renting coworking space or not showing up for arbitrary in-office days. They don’t necessarily hate the office. What they hate is not having a good reason to be there.

Many have happily returned to work, glad to get back in a routine and being able to meet colleagues, but have found that the office is often sparsely populated. As a result they stay at home more often (if possible) and a vicious circle is created, at least from the office perspective. The inspiration and creativity doesn't happen if half the staff are missing. 

“If I go into the office and there are people but none of them are on my team, I don’t gain anything besides a commute,” Mathew, who works at a large payroll company in New Jersey, said. “Instead of sitting at my own desk, I’m sitting at a desk in Roseland.”

The situation is similar at some university campuses. A recent article in the Norwegian higher education news site Khrono describes the situation at one institution where the students had returned to campus but the teachers prefer to work from home (article in Norwegian: Tomme kontorlandskap i nybygg: Bekymret for at mange holder seg aktivt borte). A new building featuring activity-based working spaces is under-used and teachers only come in to do the most essential activities. This defeats one of the main attractions of the campus: the mix of faculty and students and the academic ethos. Even in the buildings where teachers have individual offices the corridors are often very quiet. So maybe it isn't simply a matter of teachers' aversion to open office space. 

Some students are also staying at home and complaining if they have to travel to campus for a lecture that could have been recorded or conducted online. For them the convenience of online delivery outweighs the advantages of social contacts and sense of community. There are also students, and even staff, whose homes are simply not pleasant working spaces and so the campus is essential for their studies. Universities also have today two very different student groups: young campus students (18-23 years old) who want the full traditional student experience with social activities, network building and a strong community spirit and older students who already have a family, job and social life where they live and are less interested in campus life. Universities are investing vast amounts of money on new campus buildings and facilities but are spending only a fraction of that on their digital campus. How does the digital campus (learning management system, student services etc) contribute to community building and a sense of belonging?  

I don't think we're going to abandon the office or campus but we do need to some creative thinking and question some deeply ingrained traditions. We need to make it clear what the advantages are and make the events there simply unmissable. Active learning on campus is more stimulating and creative and no matter what hybrid technology may be available you are always going to be a bit detached as an online participant. It's fine to demand on-site meetings as long as they live up to expectations and are not just routine information delivery. Forcing people to come to the office or having ad hoc rules simply creates resentment. Maybe 2-3 days a week on-site and make sure they are filled with activities that justify them. Plus a consistent and negotiated policy from employers so that the rules apply to all and are respected. The debate continues ...

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Innovation - a state of mind

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash
Whenever innovation in education is discussed we immediately see images of virtual reality visors, virtual worlds or 3D printers. Very impressive but hardly likely to be normal practice in schools and universities around the world. Maybe we need to look more closely at what innovation really means and discover that you can be extremely innovative in your teaching without using any advanced technology at all. Maybe sometimes you don't even need technology at all.

This is very well expressed in my article of the week by Alexandra MihaiInnovation in Higher Education. Wait, what? Innovation is not about one-off projects or expensive technology but about testing new methods and learning from experience. 

What I find most problematic these days is that innovation is mostly referred to in conjunction to the latest shiny technology (think AI, VR). Don’t get me wrong, when used in the right context, these immersive forms of technology can definitely enhance the learning experience. But, while they are the most often showcased, they are far from being the only things that qualify as “innovation”; they tend to be expensive (still), difficult to scale up and transfer between different contexts and learning goals.
Of course technology plays a significant part in innovative practice but the real innovation is about finding new ways to promote collaboration and ensuring that no students are excluded in the process. There are pockets of innovation everywhere but they seldom lead to mainstream adoption because no one is able to join the dots. Genuine innovation can mean finding new ways for multi-disciplinary collaboration and involving students in the course design process. Maybe it is about making new connections.
Innovation is connecting people, helping them to collaborate and learn effectively. This can take many shapes, from faculty co-designing curses and (why not?) programmes, ideally also involving students in the process, to faculty, educational developers and instructional designers working together as a team to create rich learning experiences. It’s all about nurturing learning communities and communities of practice.
The article closes with the statement: An innovative university is a genuine learning organisation. Genuine innovation is creating a creative environment where scientific curiosity is allowed to flourish and where new ideas are tested and assessed. Where there is room for trial and error as long as it is based on sound research-based practice. Changes don't need to be sudden or disruptive either. It takes time and patience and we need to avoid the temptation to expect quick-fix solutions. Innovation is more a state of mind.
... an innovative mindset permeates the entire institution, at all its levels.