Monday, September 25, 2023

Educational project jargon generator

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

Over the years I've read a lot of project applications, project reports and both listened to and given many presentations about projects. Of course they're full of jargon, especially the buzzwords that are current in the field, and it's virtually impossible to be taken seriously without them. But at the same time, they get very quickly tiresome and many of us have amused ourselves during long meetings at making buzzword bingo sheets and seeing how quickly you can fill them.

So, in an unusual example of humour on this blog, I would like to share with you my own jargon generator that you can use in your next presentation or report. Just pick one word from each column and you have an impressive but meaningless phrase that you can drop in almost anywhere. It's also very useful for mission statements and strategy documents.

deliveringdigitaltriple helixsystems
assessingdiversecutting edgeoutcomes
addressing21st centurycornerstonescholarship

Monday, September 11, 2023

Reading around the world - mission accomplished


My top six books: top row Egypt, Poland, Canada, bottom row Austria, Palestine, Barbados

Earlier this year I wrote about my project to read at least one novel from every country and self-governing territory I have visited (see post, Reading around the world, with a little help from my network). I counted 56 of them and I have now completed my task, taking about a year and a half. I have never read as intensively before, not even during my undergraduate years studying English literature. It has been a wonderful experience, especially because I asked friends from each country for recommendations thus adding a personal touch to each book. Some books I chose myself since I had no obvious contacts in that country but the vast majority were recommendations. I had of course already ticked off quite a few countries before I started, namely the UK (hundreds of titles over the years), Ireland, Sweden, Russia, France, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. 

As I mentioned in my earlier post my only problem country was Liechtenstein. I searched and searched for a novel from there in a language I can read but found nothing. My German is too basic to tackle a novel and the only books I could find were in German. The only book I found was a rather disjointed compilation of folk tales and history complied by a Canadian who had become fascinated by the country. Luxembourg also proved rather elusive and I had to settle for poetry by the excellent Anise Koltz. Maybe I will try a novel in French from Luxembourg though it will be a test of my dormant knowledge of that language. Otherwise I read the vast majority of books in English but also a few in Swedish and Danish.

Since most of the books were recommended by friends they weren't always exactly what I might have chosen myself. Some were tough reading, but they were all rewarding in their own way and this was a good way of widening my choices beyond my own preferences. Although the books come from very  diverse countries and cultures there deal with universal themes: family, home, love, loyalty and their absence. People may do things differently around the world but we have the same hopes and fears. 

My top titles

Many friends have asked me which books I liked best. They all had their merits and it's impossible to make any sort of ranking list but after careful consideration, here is my list of six particularly memorable titles, in no particular order.

Egypt: Naguib Mahfouz - Cairo Trilogy

A magnificent family saga tracing a Cairo family's fortunes through a turbulent period in Egypt's history as it tries to free itself from British colonial rule and the struggle between tradition and modernity. The story is told from different perspectives and shows the tensions between generations and genders. The strict patriarchal order shown at the start is soon shown to be full of contradictions as is the modernist attitudes that develop later in the book. All the characters have their flaws as well as virtues and we develop an understanding for all of them. Three books in one and a major read, but well worth it. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.

Poland: Olga Tokarczuk - Books of Jacob

An epic novel about the Jewish 18th century cult leader Jacob Frank who claimed to be the Messiah and developed a considerable and devoted following among dissident Jews in Poland and central Europe. Although Jacob is the central figure we learn about him through the eyes of many followers and critics.He has undoubted charm and charisma but is also a manipulating narcissist with no empathy or humility and we have little or no sympathy for him. The book is meticulously researched and the level of detail is sometimes overwhelming, but at the same time fascinating. The atmosphere is dark and intricately described, full of mysticism and philosophical discourse and the lasting impression of the book is more about this atmosphere than the events described.

If pushed I would probably put this one at the top of my list simply because it was so powerful. It's not an easy read and deserves to be reread to really appreciate it but I will certainly never forget it. I can clearly see why Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Canada: Richard Wagamese - A ragged company

A moving and very thought-provoking story of four homeless drifters in a nameless Canadian city trying to survive in the brutal winter where some homeless people freeze to death if they can't find shelter. All four have had tough times, suffered cruelty and bitter disappointment and ended up on the streets. They are survivors but have found strength in each other's company. They spend their days in cinemas watching movies, an escape to other worlds. They get to know a former journalist who still has a home but has lost his bearings in life and also finds solice in the cinema. He then becomes a sort of mentor for the group especially when their fortunes turn dramatically.

One day one of the group finds a lottery ticket that proves to be a jackpot winner and suddenly the group are rich. This could so easily become a rather clichéd novel about how their lives are transformed by unexpected riches but not here. They use their winnings wisely to help them find a new home, not so much physically but more emotionally. It's a touching story about roots, home, love and companionship and although there are some harrowing episodes it leaves a lasting taste of hope.

Austria: Robert Seehaller - Fältet (Eng. The field)

A haunting collection of memories from the occupants of the cemetery of a small Austrian town. Each chapter features memories of people who have recently died and by piecing together these narratives we get to know the town and the events and dramas that have taken place there in recent years. The field in the title is the name the locals have given to the cemetery. Some chapters are inter-related as we read different perspectives of the same event. Some are tales of loneliness and disappointment, others are full of hope and redemption. Some chapters are very short, only a couple of paragraphs, and are impossible to interpret beyond guesswork. I enjoyed the thoughtful and rather melancholic atmosphere of this book. 

Palestine: Radwa Ashour - The woman from Tantoura

The tale of a woman and her family forced to flee from their Palestinian village in 1948 as Israeli forces took over large parts of Palestinian territory. Her father and brothers are killed as are many of the village's men and the survivors head north to exile in Lebanon's refugee camps (where their descendants still live, 75 years later). She is a survivor and brings up her children in exile, always longing for the home that has been forever lost. Tragedy strikes again in the 1982 massacre in the refugee camp of Shatila but once again she manages to survive. It is not so much a political book but the story of a woman's courage and resourcefulness to keep her family going through so much hardship. In the end there is hope since her sons find prosperous lives far from the restrictions of the refugee camps. The woman stays however holding on to her memories of home.

Barbados: Karen Lord - Redemption in indigo

A charming book of magic and wonder, based on African folk tales mixed with Caribbean traditions. In a world where everyday life is influenced by the whims and sometimes mischievous designs of spirits called djombi, a young woman finds a magic stick, the chaos stick. This belongs to the Indigo Lord who desperately needs to recover it because his magic powers are limited without the stick. He eventually finds her and takes her away to far-off places and adventures. They learn to respect each other and the Indigo Lord finds that this mortal is much cleverer than most humans. I loved this book because it was a welcome break from the tragedy and suffering of so many other books. A real feel-good book but with with depth and food for thought.

What next? I will just keep reading more from these countries and maybe widen my search to countries that I haven't visited but where I have friends or countries that I wish I could have visited. This project has opened my eyes to all the literature beyond the Anglo-American tradition that I was brought up on. I would like to read more African literature since all the books I read from there so far have been very rewarding. I need to move south of the Sahara for new perspectives.

The list 

UK, Ireland, France, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland were already well read before this project started.

Austria: Robert Seehaller - Fältet (Eng. The field)
Barbados: Karen Lord - Redemption in indigo
Belarus: Uladzimir Karatkevich - King Stakh’s wild hunt
Belgium: Lize Spit - The melting
Bosnia & Herzegovina: Ivo Andrić - The Pasha’s concubine and other tales
Bulgaria: Georgi Gospodinov: Time shelter
Canada: Richard Wagamese - A ragged company, Jack London - Call of the wild
Croatia: Miroslav Krleza - Harbours rich with ships
Czech RepFranz Kafka - MetamorphosisJaroslav Hasek - The good soldier Svejk
DDR (East Germany): Christa Wolf, - They divided the sky
Egypt: Naguib Mahfouz - Cairo Trilogy
Estonia: A H Tammsaare - Vargamäe, The misadventures of the new Satan
Faroe Islands: Jörgen-Frantz Jacobsen - Barbara, William Heinesen - De fortabte spillemænd (Eng. The lost musicians)
Germany: Alfred Döblin - Berlin Alexanderplatz
Greece: Theodor Kallifatides - Ännu ett liv (Eng. Another life)
Greenland: Niviaq Korneliussen - Blomsterdalen (Eng. Flower Valley)
Hungary: Sandor Marai - Embers
Indonesia:Y B Mangunwijaya - Durga / Umayi
Israel: Amos Oz - A tale of love and darkness
Italy: Tomasi di Lampedusa - The Leopard, Sibilla Aleramo.- A Woman
Jordan: Abdelrahman Munif - Cities of salt
Lebanon: Amin Maalouf - The rock of TaniosIman Humaydan (ed) - Beirut Noir
Latvia: Nora Ikstena - Modersmjölken (Eng. Soviet milk)
Liechtenstein: Tales of Liechtenstein, then and now
Lithuania: Zemaite - Marriage for love
Luxembourg: Anise Koltz - At the edge of the night
Malaysia: Tan Twan Eng - The garden of evening mists
Montenegro: Olja Knezevic - Milena and other social reforms
Morocco: Tahar Ben Jalloun - The pleasure marriage
Netherlands: W F Hermans - Beyond sleep
Oman: Abdulaziz al Farsi - Earth weeps, Saturn laughs
Pakistan: Mohsin Hamid - The reluctant fundamentalist
Palestine: Radwa Ashour - The woman from Tantoura
Poland: Olga Tokarczuk - Books of Jacob
Portugal: José Saramago - Blindheten (Eng. Blindness), Alla namnen (Eng. All the names), Richard Zimler - The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
Qatar: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud - The Corsair
Romania: Dan Lungu - I’m an old commie
Slovenia: Drago Jancar - I saw her that night
Spain: Miguel de Cervantes - Don Quixote
Sri Lanka: Romesh Gunesekera - Reef
Switzerland: Friedrich Dürrenmatt - The pledge
Trinidad & Tobago: V S Naipaul - A house for Mr Biswas
Tunisia: Albert Memmi - The desert, Hassouna Moshabi - Solitaire
Turkey: Orhan Pamuk - Snow, The black book
UAE: Maha Gargash - The sand fish
Venezuela: Ana Teresa Torres - Dona Ines vs oblivion
Åland: Ulla-Lena Lundberg - Is

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Digital is never forever - print still matters

Photo by Mayer Tawfik on Unsplash

We have lulled ourselves into a false security that digital content is permanent and have therefore entrusted our society's most important records to servers, often owned by commercial corporations. But as file formats change every few years and new technologies make old ones obsolete, everything has to be converted and updated and some content may be lost on the way. Files can be corrupted or hacked. Our own stores of family photos and videos will probably not last as long as the old negatives and tapes unless we keep updating them. I have several disks and CD-ROMs that have become unreadable. Digital vulnerability is an issue.

A new threat has been added now that we depend so much on cloud storage and streaming. The company that owns the service can at any time decide to withdraw certain services or even delete content. This digital vulnerability is highlighted in an article on SlateWhy 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four. Users of Amazon's Kindle platform for e-books who had bought George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm discovered recently that the books had been suddenly deleted from their devices. Amazon claimed that there were legal irregularities with the copies and therefore they had to delete them. The users were refunded and the explanation seemed plausible. This has happened with other publications as well but the irony of the two most famous works of a dystopian authoritarian future being suddenly deleted from all devices is alarming. Even if this may have been an honest mistake it shows that these companies have enormous power of the content we can access.

The worst thing about this story isn’t Amazon’s conduct; it’s the company’s technical capabilities. Now we know that Amazon can delete anything it wants from your electronic reader. That’s an awesome power, and Amazon’s justification in this instance is beside the point.
We still have millions of printed copies of these books as well as digital versions on other e-book platforms but if we continue to move towards a completely digital future the risks are clear. Our digital content can be deleted, our accounts can be blocked and our access limited. It's not hard to imagine how this power can be misused. In a rational, civilised society governed by laws that work in the interests of the public good this would be regulated but we don't live in that sort of world today. We have put enormous power in the hands of a few extremely powerful global corporations.
Most of the e-books, videos, video games, and mobile apps that we buy these days day aren’t really ours. They come to us with digital strings that stretch back to a single decider—Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or whomever else. Steve Jobs has confirmed that every iPhone routinely checks back with Apple to make sure the apps you’ve purchased are still kosher; Apple reserves the right to kill any app at any time for any reason. But why stop there? If Apple or Amazon can decide to delete stuff you’ve bought, then surely a court—or, to channel Orwell, perhaps even a totalitarian regime—could force them to do the same. Like a lot of others, I’ve predicted the Kindle is the future of publishing. Now we know what the future of book banning looks like, too.

One of many disturbing echoes of the 1930s is the growth in banning and even burning books that challenge the narrow-minded values of a government or militant political or religious movement. This is not restricted to authoritarian regimes like Russia, Iran or China but also now in many European countries, both western and eastern. Authorities can try to stop libraries from lending certain books or schools from letting pupils read them or even stop shops from selling them, but copies will always be out there and people will hide them and circulate them even when banned. That's how many important works have survived through years of repression and tyranny. Once printed books are out there it is impossible to be sure that you have eliminated them all.

Digital is different however. In the world of e-books you never really own your e-book, it is dependent on the device or app you use to read it with and that can be upgraded, replaced or disappear completely. When a digital service dies all your content goes with it unless you get advance warning and find a way to download it. My music collection on Spotify exists only as long as I pay the subscription and the company still offers the service. Quite a few songs on my Spotify playlists are shaded in light grey with the explanation that they are no longer available. They haven't been censored or anything like that but we have to accept that content can be withdrawn. If Google pulled the plug on this platform, Blogger, all my blog content goes with it. Digital is never forever.

Digital content is transient and unreliable. It can be deleted without your consent and I'm sure with the growth of AI, all content can be manipulated and changed to better reflect a dominant ideology. We need to preserve knowledge safely for the future and not be reliant on just one medium.Print still matters.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Farewell Twitter - breaking up is hard to do

Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash

It looks like it is time to leave the sinking ship of the app formerly known as Twitter after almost 15 years of tweeting. Elon Musk, looking and behaving more and more like a classic James Bond villain, has succeeded in destroying a major social media channel in one year of chaotic ownership. His strategy seems to be to scare off all serious users and create a new platform, X, for right wing extremism, conspiracy theories and disinformation. In that case he has succeeded. 

However, I'm sad to leave because over the years I have made so many valuable connections on Twitter that have lead to collaboration and new friendships, as well as countless useful links, inspirational chats and moral support. I've met people on Twitter who I have then met at conferences, written articles with and formed projects with. It took me a few years of work to build up a network on Twitter. Many colleagues gave up with it because they had so few connections and didn't work out how to attract more. There was little or no interest in the platform here in Sweden back then so I reached out internationally, following educators I knew and admired and then checking who they followed. That way I built up a network of trusted sources. Then I had to find ways of getting people to follow me otherwise I'd be simply tweeting into a vacuum. I focused on sharing useful content (articles, news, threads) and using hashtags to reach as many as possible. Slowly people started following me and connections began to happen. I followed people and channels who offered useful content for my work and assumed that some of themwould find me a useful contact. I also started using Twitter to generate traffic to my blogs and that certainly helped them thrive. I remember the day one of my educational gurus retweeted one of my blog posts and I saw the sudden peak in page views - I really felt I'd made the big time! That has happened quite often since then but I still get a great feeling when a major name in my field notices what I've done. No names mentioned but I thank you all. 

I have made many exciting contacts and one in particular still makes me smile. I saw a tweet one day from a school teacher in Canada  who had seen a nice Swedish brochure about using Creative Commons licenses in school. She wondered if anyone could translate it to English. I happened to know the person who wrote the original and we very quickly created a new English version and sent it to the Canadian teacher. This then spread and was used in many schools. I then got an invitation from the teacher to meet her class on Skype one afternoon and talk about Creative Commons as well as answering the pupils' questions about life in Sweden. All that because I answered a tweet.

Then there have been all the tweetchats. I have taken part in many of these and organised many too. If you have never tried one before it goes like this. You announce a chat session in advance and a suitable hashtag. At the proposed time you send a tweet with the hashtag welcoming everyone to the tweetchat. Participants "tune in" by searching for the hashtag on Twitter or whatever app you use for it. The participants can then introduce themselves and you can make a few welcoming remarks and repeat the chat rules. The key is that the hashtag must appear on every post. Then you ask a question and wait for responses. As the answers come in you can comment on them and encourage participants to comment on each others' posts. You keep feeding the discussion until the time is up, usually after one hour. It's rather chaotic - some people find it stressful and confusing whilst others thrive. I love hosting but you end up typing almost non-stop for an hour. If you have experienced users the chat just flies along and participants share links, ideas and new perspectives. I will miss this and even if the same thing can be done on other platforms I don't really have the energy to start all over again.

As Twitter implodes into a platform called X it is time for the world's media, institutions, companies and leaders to leave and stop using it as a channel for serious dissemination and discussion. I hope that world politics will no longer be conducted on X. I'm not sure where they should move to though. Do we really trust Meta's new Threads? Is Mastodon able to become a default news source? Or is the new social media landscape too fragmented? Twitter has been an extremely powerful medium for 15 years and it is hard to understand how it could be destroyed so quickly.

Curiously, I have never really seen the dark side of Twitter. Maybe it's due to a combination of being careful who I follow and the algorithms being very effective at feeding me content that I want to see. Anyway, my feed has always been full of education content as well as increasing amounts of climate research and humanitarian posts with almost no trace of the toxic garbage that have made the platform so infamous, especially since Musk turned off all the safety controls. I'm still reluctant to completely switch off because I still get good useful content from both contacts and trusted news media. I've deleted Twitter from my mobile but haven't quite pressed the button to completely exit. Breaking up is hard to do.

PS. I have now deleted my account.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Into the vortex of the post-truth era

Photo by Manuel M. Almeida on Unsplash

I can't help it but here's another post about my concerns with artificial intelligence. AI is already being used to churn out fake news stories, entire sites of it, as well as fake reviews of hotels, restaurants, movies and much much more. It can be used to write plausible project plans, essays and academic articles (often without substance or any originality complete with references both genuine and invented), fake videos of people saying and doing things they never did in reality (whatever that is!), scripts for TV shows, novels - the list goes on and on. Since AI can produce an infinite amount of content in a few blinks of an eye, I wonder what happens when most of the content on the web is AI-generated. And since AI trawls the web for content it will be trawling other AI content and producing new content based on its own content. This sounds like a wormhole into a Wonderland where nothing is real and fact and fiction have become completely blurred into each other. 

Reviews have been a problem for a long time with people being paid to write fake reviews to make or break a hotel, restaurant, destination, book or film. But why pay people to write nonsense when AI does it instantly and for free. This is highlighted in a n article in the GuardianFake reviews: can we trust what we read online as use of AI explodes? The review sites like Trip Advisor, Amazon etc are aware of the problem and try to filter out the obvious fakes but very soon we will not be able to tell the difference, making the whole process meaningless. In the end you stop reading the reviews. The companies behind the AI tools simply ignore the issue - they lit the fuse and then watch the fireworks.

Guardian Money asked OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, why it does not prevent its AI tool from producing fake reviews of hotels, restaurants and products that the “reviewer” has never visited or used. We made multiple attempts to contact the company and submitted a number of questions but it did not respond by the time this article was published.
AI music is also thriving with streaming services offering playlists of AI-generated formula music in various genres. Since this music is generated by scanning thousands of human compositions the music industry is concerned about copyright and royalties as described in an article on CNN, Universal Music Group calls AI music a ‘fraud,’ wants it banned from streaming platforms. Experts say it’s not that easy. We could theoretically stop it but it's hard to prove breach of copyright when the AI tool has sampled thousands of pieces. 
“You can flag your site not to be searched. But that’s a request — you can’t prevent it. You can just request that someone not do it,” said Shelly Palmer, Professor of Advanced Media at Syracuse University.
Pandora's box is wide open and it looks very unlikely that we will be able to impose regulations. Once again the companies benefitting from the AI-generated content are predictably silent:
Music streamers Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora did not return request for comment.
I have read many articles about how we can harness AI to open up new opportunities in education, health care and other fields and there will be some excellent examples of good practice. But in terms of the wider impact I simply can't imagine human beings acting so rationally. We are truly entering the post-truth era.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Wave goodbye to the edtech cruisers and focus on real community building

Photo by Peter Hansen on Unsplash

One year after retirement and it's a strange feeling standing on the quay watching the edtech ship sail away from me and onwards towards the horizon. I've tried to maintain contact with the issues I used to find so important but if you're not onboard and involved it all feels more remote every day until the ship disappears over the horizon. There are new technologies and platforms on board now and my personal learning environment has become almost obsolete.I thrived on the social media boom of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Diigo and so on and the opportunities these fascinating channels offered for networking, collaboration, sharing and creativity. It was a great ride for about 12 years but it has all turned sour as the platforms have become polluted with algorithm-driven ads, propaganda and toxicity. Having spent so long urging teachers to use social media to widen their horizons, increase their impact and foster collaboration I realised that I might now be leading them into a trap. So now the edtech cruiser is sailing away loaded with new technologies and platforms that I simply can't relate to anymore. But maybe we have to reset our ambitions about networking and settle for less flashy but more sustainable solutions.

A post by Inger Mewburn in her excellent blog The thesis whispererThe enshittification of academic social media, really rang a lot of bells for me. She has also been a strong advocate of academics using social media to promote their work and build networks. But now she advises caution with using social media on the grounds that no matter how good the content you share may be you will not get exposure thanks to algorithms that prioritise content that will generate income. It's also hard to make contact with others when the algorithms continually push other stuff in front of you.

Maybe Threads is the next big platform and indeed the initial uptake is spectacular, though here in the EU it is blocked since it is full of major privacy issues that violate the GDPR regulations (well played EU!). But even if you can use Threads it's probably not a good idea. It looks good but it feeds off your privacy and is fully integrated with the rest of Meta's platforms.

Inger proposes a revised set of recommendations to academics wanting to use social media in their work. Think very carefully before you use mainstream social media in your teaching. Think especially about the privacy issues to which you may be exposing students and colleagues. Use these channels for social contacts if you want but don't share content there; own your content by having your own space for it. For building a network she suggests the good old-fashioned mailing lists. I certainly found e-mail newsletters a good way to reach out though there are issues with that, especially the problem that many organisations ' firewalls automatically block newsletters as suspected spam. But certainly you can reach out to known subscribers and build your community through that.

Email is still the best distribution medium of them all: cost free and free from algorithms. I just started a mailing list for people interested in my neurodiversity in the PhD research – I already have 160 or so people signed up, which is so incredible (thank you!). I plan to use this list to test out research ideas and get feedback on research in progress. Much more effective than shouting into the wind on Threads or something.

She also mentions a possible revival of blogging, something I would of course welcome. Use your blog as a space to share your ideas and offer advice. The best way to blog is to host the blog yourself and be in complete control. I made the mistake of opting for the convenience of Google's Blogger platform back in the days when I believed they were working for the common good and so all my writing is in their domain. 

Of course Mastodon and its family of open source social media in the Fediverse is the sustainable and uncommercial option to create communities, though it's always a good idea to check each platform first to see if it's right for you (don't assume that all are automatically trustworthy). If I was still active that's where I'd go. The Fediverse will not go mainstream and will remain a refuge for those who see through the glitter and flashy facade of the Big Five, but maybe we have to accept that meaningful collaboration is limited in scale. Leave the big platforms and connect with people rather than bots and trolls. It may not be as flashy and may not have all the bells and whistles but it works.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

To fail is human - let's share and learn from it

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

Behind every success there are lots of failures. Papers that never got published, projects that didn't get funded, courses that flopped, examinations failed, opportunities missed and so on. It happens to everyone but is seldom talked about or analysed. The success cult promoted on sites like LinkedIn shows a steady stream of successful people doing great things (more often than not "awesome"). Rather than being inspired I have often been a bit depressed when scrolling through all the success stories. It's a similar feeling at conferences which are also celebrations of success. I don't mean that we shouldn't celebrate success, but there are also lessons to be learned from less successful activities, since we can all relate to them. We may not feel we have ever reached the successful heights of the best practice cases but we can all identify with schemes that didn't win any silverware. But it's so hard to get people to share those experiences - it takes courage to admit your failures. But we could learn a lot by sharing these examples and discussing how we could improve. Most importantly hearing that even the most respected educators have failed many times in the careers.

This is the gist of a nice article by Tracy Nevatte in Times Higher EducationLead by example and share your failures. She calls on senior academics to share their failures and how they contributed to later success. Many young researchers and teachers despair at repeated rejections and wonder if they are really cut out for a career in education and an opportunity to be rassured that everyone has felt like that at some point can be more inspiring than listening to stories of constant success.

We rarely see senior academics share their failures, either with each other or with those at the start of their careers, but their career trajectory is undoubtedly full of them. Do they not share these stories because they’re ashamed or, rather, do they not see them as failures in the first place? The latter seems more likely. Only when we normalise failure, and take the isolating power of it away, can failures equal success. But it’s going to take effort from early career researchers, research leaders, institutions and funders to get there.
There are indeed failure conferences, sharing experience and discussing how to improve. See Failcon for example. I've never managed to attend one but wish I had been able to. It's not easy, however, to attract speakers who are willing to talk about their less successful ventures and you certainly don't get any career points for doing so. Being a keynote speaker at a failure conference would not be something to post on LinkedIn. But we need to remove the shame and stigma and dare to share. Realising the even the top practitioners have a long string of flops behind them can reassure many who feel like giving up. By opening up like this and discussing our shortcomings we can also move away from the toxic overworking culture that has so often been spread on social media with people bragging about the unfeasibly long hours they spend working on their projects, papers, course design and project applications.

This post was written without any contribution from AI. I wonder if AI can discuss its own vulnerability ...

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Self-assessment of digitally enhanced learning and teaching - overcoming inertia

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

The pandemic threw all educational institutions into the deep end of the educational technology pool. Adapting to what was for most institutions a relatively new form of teaching and learning was a traumatic but also transformative experience. In the wake of that experience the most obvious strategy was to take stock and make a thorough review of what worked, what didn't work and how to improve in terms of using digital technology. In an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world the likelihood of further crises is extremely high and therefore the need to ensure that education can quickly adapt.

There is no shortage of research, reports, guidelines, tools, webinars and conferences to help educational institutions improve their use of educational technology in teaching and learning. Organisations like the European Commission, EUA (European University Association), EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) and many others have run projects, produced reports and run dozens of webinars and conferences all based on extensive research but somehow they seldom result in major changes on the ground. It's not simply about the adotpion of technology, that is really not the main point, it is a change towards more inclusive and active forms of teaching and learning. It's about learning to learn by active involvement in meaningful collaborative work where technology is an enabling factor. But the main barrier is the reluctance to change from the traditional information transfer model that so many people feel comfortable with and which is perceived as effective and indeed symbolic of higher education.

An excellent way to move towards this is to look carefully at how technology is used in the institution today and how this contributes to a more holistic view of teaching and learning - a process of self-assessment. This has been the focus of a recent EUA project, DIGI-HE that I have been involved in (on the advisory board). The project has included numerous studies, consultations and thematic peer groups reaching a broad range of educational institutions and in various disciplines. One report in particular offers a comprehensive overview of the wide range of self-assessment tools available and advise on their use: Developing a high performance digital education ecosystem - Institutional self-assessment instruments.

Set against this prerogative and growing strategic interest, this report presents a review of 20 instruments from around the globe designed for self-assessment of digitally enhanced learning and teaching at higher education institutions. It offers a number of insightful observations concerning their use (or non-use) by institutions for promoting both quality enhancement and digital capacity development. It should be of immediate interest to higher education institutions, but also to policy makers, developers of instruments, and generally, to all those who seek information on such instruments.

The project also produced a MOOC on FutureLearnInside Digital Higher Education: Self-Assessment Guide for Educators. Here institutional leaders are taken through the process of reviewing the institution's current strategies and planning for a self-assessment, looking at both risks and opportunities. The course was run during the spring but is available as an asynchronous self-study course. This is a good springboard to kick-start a change process and the project's various reports provide further guidance and inspiration from institutions who have already started their transformation process. 

This is one example of the abundance of the guidance and support available for digital transformation and pedagogical development but as the saying goes: you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Despite the clear benefits of conducting a self-assessment there seems to be a great reluctance to do so, despite the lessons of the pandemic and the abundance of research into active collaborative learning. The first barrier is the abundance of tools that creates anxiety on which one to choose. Faced with too much choice we simply don't make a choice. I think we all experience feelings like this in our daily lives when faced with the myriad of choices available in everything between insurance to telecom providers. It seems that we all suffer from inertia when it comes to actions that threaten our comforable balance. 

Self-assesment also demands a lot of time and energy at a time when most people feel already stressed and overworked. It also risks exposing wasteful practices or inequalities in the present system and thus creating conflict. The pandemic was certainly disruptive (tragically so for millions around the world) and there were signs that we would need to rethink our structures and systems to adapt to new challenges. However, we seem to have simply reverted to old practices again without much reflection. Changing the way we live and work is too demanding so we return to the default. Thatä's why we can't expect too much of institutions to embark on such costly processes voluntarily (with a few exceptions). Governments and authorities need to help them find space and time for these processes and offer incentives for doing so. Then we can hopefully create some momentum that will generate interest and widen involvement.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Reading around the world, with a little help from my network

I read a lot; it goes with the job of course but even outside work I just keep reading. At the moment I'm busy with an extremely rewarding project to read at least one novel from every country I have visited, 56 in total. In view of the environmental impact of air travel, I can't hope for any more international travel unless overland, so I will now focus on travel in my own part of the world and appreciating my past travels. One way to do that is by reading.

The idea for my reading project came from Ann Morgan's inspirational book blog, A year of reading around the world, where she documents her quest to read a book from every country in the world in one year, all 195 of them - yes, even the Vatican City! I believe in setting achievable targets and decided to limit my total, but maybe once I've done them all I could just go on and see how far I get. To get the inside story of Ann's reading marathon you can watch the TED talk she gave a few years ago.

She reached out to her readers for tips on which books to choose and I decided to make use of my own network of educators around the world in the same way. I've written many times on the concept of personal learning networks and how my contacts have helped me in so many ways over the years, answering questions, recommending work literature and sharing practice. So this time I contacted them and asked for recommended reading from their countries. So most of my reading list has come from personal recommendations making the books even more special, reflecting both the country and the tastes of my friends.

I have also been a bit liberal with my definition of countries. Three of them are self-governing Nordic territories, Greenland, Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands, but they all have distinct histories and culture and deserve special status in my list. I have also included a country that no longer exists, East Germany (DDR), that I visited several times and also had its own literary culture far removed from that of  West Germany. Some countries like the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, France, Russia and Germany were well covered before I even started but I was surprised to discover that I had never actually read anything from countries like Spain, Portugal or Italy (apart from Roman authors from 2,000 years ago). I've now got 16 left before I reach my goal. The trickiest hurdle to clear will be Liechtenstein since as far as I can see has no novelists who have been translated into English. I have a basic knowledge of German but have never studied it and couldn't tackle a novel. Even Ann Morgan had trouble with this one and in the end read a travel book about Tibet by an author from Liechtenstein. I am restricted to reading books in English or the Scandinavian languages though maybe with a bit of patience I could manage one in French.

We tend to be very ethnocentric in our reading. Most people focus on authors from their own country or from the homes of the major publishers: the USA and the UK. Only when the Nobel prize is announced each year do authors from other countries get a chance to be in the spotlight. Just reading one book from a country doesn't give me much insight to its culture but at least I have opened the door. In many cases I have found other books that I will hopefully follow up in the future.

Another aspect of this activity is that I am affirming my love of printed books. I have a lot of packed bookshelves in the house and this project is filling them to the last centimetre. Of course I could save space and time by reading them as e-books or even audio books but then I couldn't really see my collection. My bookshelves are like a trophy cabinet in the same way my record collection used to be. My disenchantment with the digital tsunami has lead me to return to reading printed material, even the daily newspaper in the letterbox.

After the sadness of my previous post I have decided that I want to keep this blog going but widen its horizons outside the confines of educational technology. I don't intend to turn it into a book blog but I think I may include posts that reflect on my reading in the footsteps of my travels.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Frozen in the headlights of AI

Photo by Eugene Triguba on Unsplash

This has been the longest break between blog posts since I started this in 2008. I've been busy with other things but I also have to admit that it's hard to find a topic that inspires me just now. My retirement last year has meant that I no longer spend hours reading reports, articles and news items in the field and I am not in direct daily contact with educators and researchers to provide input and inspiration. I am still taking short assignments but have no intention of returning to full-time work. A major reason for retiring early was that I realised that I had lost my enthusiasm for the field. Educational technology is all about big business and is dominated by a few global corporations profiting from all the data they acquire from students and teachers alike. Although there are still havens of openness and collaboration, most of the internet is controlled by the big five corporations and driven by greed. I'm not sure I want to continue encouraging the use of technologies that I'm feeling increasingly uncomfortable about. This theme has been well documented by Audrey Watters who after many years of exposing the myths and bluffs of the educational technology industry finally decided to leave the field completely and start a new life (see her present blog which today is about fitness and nutrition instead of technology).

I find myself frozen in the headlights of the AI juggernaut and realise that I don't have the curiosity and energy to find out more and test new opportunities. I see many colleagues presenting optimistic ideas for how we can use AI to benefit education and how tools like ChatGPT are simply the modern equivalents of the advent of the pocket calculator or the iPhone. Yes, there are certainly benefits to using AI in education as long as we do so with caution and as long as we have control over how the data gathered is stored and used in the future. But I can't see that happening when there are such overwhelming commercial interests involved. I see enormous potential for misuse in the form of surveillance, control, automation of skilled work and an explosion of fake news and propaganda. Stop the world, I want to get off.

I found some consolation reading Tony Bates' latest post, What are the main issues facing digital learning in the future?, where he announces that he will be scaling down his work in educational technology and citing AI as the insurmountable barrier. 

I could continue in the field and still contribute to the important but specific areas of online and digital learning, but AI is the deal breaker. I would have to work so hard to become expert in this area (and even then I may not have the mathematical skills), and it is now so critical to the future of digital learning that expertise and full understanding of AI and the issues around its use in post-secondary education and teaching are absolutely essential. I hope there are younger, brighter educators coming into the field who are willing to develop this area of expertise.

The challenge of learning about AI and its implications are one step too far for me too. AI is a complete game changer and if I am not willing to devote a lot of time to learning more about it, I don't think I can be relevant in the field anymore. So I'm unsure about the future of this blog which has been a part of my life for so long. I'll wait and see if I find new inspiration in the coming months and if not I can round it off with a review of what I have learned from the process.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Artificial intelligence - instant gratification but what do we learn?

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become the default centre of attention in education this year with enthusiasts telling us to accept and even welcome it into our teaching and learning whilst sceptics are busy looking for tools that can detect AI-generated texts, videos and images in order to combat the expected wave of cheating. The tech giants are already on the case with Microsoft planning to embed ChatGPT and now Google has announced a launch of their version of the tool. There's big money to be made out there and lots of data to be harvested and distilled. 

Cheating in exams is probably the least of our worries. This eternal battle reminds me of the wonderful Spy versus spy cartoons in Mad magazine where two spies, identical except for one being dressed in white, the other in black, engage in a never-ending tit-for-tat battle using all sorts of secret weapons. Every new secret weapon prompts an even better anti secret-weapon weapon in a parody of the cold war antics of the USA and the USSR. In recent years we've had waves of plagiarism detection tools countered with essay mills where you can buy off-the-shelf essays or pay someong else to write it all for you. Interestingly the biggest vendor of plagiarism detection software Turnitin has announced its own AI-detection software. And so it goes on. It's time to break this war of attrition by changing to other forms of assessment based on personal reflection, interviews and projects. Many teachers have already made this transition. 

A more balanced response to AI in education appears in an article on SlateYou’re Not Going to Like How Colleges Respond to ChatGPT. The authors see the spy versus spy scenario as one orchestrated by the tech companies so that educators will feel forced to invest in AI detection software (you can bet your life that this will need to be updated regularly and create a never-ending income stream).

Whenever fears of technology-aided plagiarism appear in schools and universities, it’s a safe bet that technology-aided plagiarism detection will be pitched as a solution. Almost concurrent with the wave of articles on the chatbot was a slew of articles touting solutions. A Princeton student spent a chunk of his winter break creating GPTZero, an app he claims can detect whether a given piece of writing was done by a human or ChatGPT. Plagiarism-detection leviathan Turnitin is touting its own “A.I.” solutions to confront the burgeoning issue. Even instructors across the country are reportedly catching students submitting essays written by the chatbot. OpenAI itself, in a moment of selling us all both the affliction and the cure, has proposed plagiarism detection or even some form of watermark to notify people of when the tech has been used. Unfortunately, the tool released is, according to the company, “not fully reliable.”

Once again it's a case of whether we should develop new technologies just because we can and then let the world deal with the consequences. Who benefits? Certainly not educators or students but then again nobody asked us.

However, one thing we can be sure of is this: OpenAI is not thinking about educators very much. It has decided to “disrupt” and walk away, with no afterthought about what schools should do with the program.

The texts produced by AI are often impressive - articles with references, instant summaries, creative writing, poetry, programming - but the shortcomings are becoming clearer as people experiment more deeply. Basically it reformulates what it finds on the sources it trawls, including some that would not be considered reliable, and sometimes it simply makes a guess at an answer, as Maha Bali describes in How *Not* To Be Overly Impressed with #ChatGPT. These flaws make it untrustworthy at present but I suspect it will improve very rapidly.

Yes, it's impressive to get an instant blog post or essay but what do you learn from that? Isn't learning all about doing this ourselves: researching other sources, working out connections, following a train of thought and putting it all together in a coherant text? The instant answer teaches you nothing. There are no magic shortcuts to learning as we should have realised by now after so many commercially driven hype cycles around things like smartboards, iPads, MOOCs, virtual reality and so on. The learning process is complex and takes place in your head, irrespective of the gadgets you have available. The Slate article continues:

To outsource idea generation to an A.I. machine is to miss the constant revision that reflection causes in our thinking. Not to mention that the biggest difference between a calculator and ChatGPT is that a calculator doesn’t have to check its answer against the loud chaos of everything toxic and hateful that has ever been posted on the internet.

AI will soon be able to write fact and fiction, compose music, produce art works, write programs, design clothes, automatically translate from one language to another and much more. When all this has been automated what is left for us to do apart from endless consumption? We need to learn how to use AI for our benefit but focus more on our own creative energy and the value of learning for our own development. We must not simply accept technology just because it's there. 

It’s a failure of imagination to think that we must learn to live with an A.I. writing tool just because it was built.
AI is developing fast and I'm struggling to make some kind of sense of it and how it affects education. Please view this post as muddled work in progress.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

AI-driven voice simulation - do we really want to go there?

Photo by Aditya Saxena on Unsplash
The old saying that curiosity killed the cat seems to apply equally well to us. Even when we see the dangerous potential of new technology we just keep on developing it. We continued developing nuclear weapons even when we saw the devastation they caused and maybe our curiosity about artificial intelligence will lead us to new distasters. As I wrote in the last post we can't resist opening Pandora's box.

In the wake of the panic caused by ChatGPT (an excellent overview of what we know so far is in a post by Mark Brown, Ten facts about ChatGPT). I found an article in Ars technicaMicrosoft’s new AI can simulate anyone’s voice with 3 seconds of audio. Microsoft have seemingly developed an AI text-to-speech model called VALL-E that can simulate a voice based on a short recording. Presumably the more input it has the better it can simulate the voice. You can then let it read any text you wish in the voice of that person, thus enabling you to create fake statements. Even if you can certainly find beneficial uses for this, the potential for and consequences of misuse are terrifying.
Its creators speculate that VALL-E could be used for high-quality text-to-speech applications, speech editing where a recording of a person could be edited and changed from a text transcript (making them say something they originally didn't), and audio content creation when combined with other generative AI models like GPT-3.
At first the fakes will be detectable but the whole point of AI is that it will improve. Combining this with tools for text, photo and video generation and the potential for governments, corporations, political parties, extremists and conspiracy theorists is enormous. Just because we can develop this technology doesn't mean that we should, to paraphrase the famous quote from Jurassic Park. Do we really want to open this box? Can't we just step back?

Microsoft try to sound reassuring in the article but I don't think we are capable of following any principles, no matter how well intentioned.
"Since VALL-E could synthesize speech that maintains speaker identity, it may carry potential risks in misuse of the model, such as spoofing voice identification or impersonating a specific speaker. To mitigate such risks, it is possible to build a detection model to discriminate whether an audio clip was synthesized by VALL-E. We will also put Microsoft AI Principles into practice when further developing the models."'

So what happens when AI becomes increasingly smarter and we can no longer trust what we read, hear or see? In case you wondered, I actually wrote this myself.