Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Memories of an analogue world

Digital technology is such an integral part of our lives today that it's easy to forget how things were before the revolution. Unlike many of my colleagues I was completely uninterested in computers until the internet came along. Pre-1990 computers were simply more trouble than they were worth and I couldn't see any advantage in learning how to use them. But once I discovered www I was converted; suddenly the world opened up!

The fact that a large section of the population doesn't know what life was like before the digital revolution is captured in a post on Quartz, What it feels like to be the last generation to remember life before the internet. The article reviews a new book by Michael Harris called The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. It's very popular for my generation to be skeptical or even dismissive of today's digital deluge but Harris avoids such sweeping generalisations and instead reflects on how his own behaviour has changed over the years, especially in terms of being always connected. We have become addicted to connection and terrified of missing something.

“When you wake up, you have this gift of a blank brain. You could fill it with anything. But for most of us, we have this kind of panic. Instead of wondering what should I do, we wonder what did I miss. It’s almost like our unconsciousness is a kind of failure and we can’t believe we’ve been offline for eight hours,” he says. It is habits like this that are insidious, not the internet itself. It is a personal thing.

I think we can all identify with the feeling of being a slave to our updates and feeds. They provide us with recognition, approval, belonging and those are extremely powerful motivators. Harris recommends spending a month on digital detox as a way of reflecting on your digital identity, something I haven't tried and suspect I would find extremely hard to achieve unless I combined it with a holiday in some remote part of the world.

But let's think back to the "good old days". How did we communicate then? Today I can keep in touch with hundreds of friends and colleagues on social media to the extent that when I do meet one of them in person I can immediately ask them about their daughter's recent wedding or their new job. I know contacts on Facebook are fairly superficial but for 90% of my connections the alternative is no contact whatsoever. I remember when I first moved to Sweden in 1983 I spent many hours a week writing, with pen and paper, very similar letters to friends and relatives in the UK. Without a photocopier I simply had to write the same thing again and again! This was very time consuming but was quite simply the only way I could keep these relationships going. Phone calls were extremely expensive and generally carried out in draughty phone boxes that had an insatiable appetite for coins.

Keeping in touch with the latest news was tricky until I had learnt Swedish. English language newspapers were available but tended to be at least two days old and tuning in to crackling radio broadcasts from the BBC World Service wasn't so uplifting either. The idea that I could write my own reflections, publish them myself and gain a worldwide audience (i.e. this blog) was beyond my wildest imagination. My music collection was not portable until the Sony Walkman came along and so all those hours spent waiting for buses and trains as well as the actual journeys were spent in bored silence unless I had a newspaper or book with me.

I visited many interesting places on holiday and would normally take one 36-exposure film for my camera. Developing them was pretty expensive so my memories of these days are now only a handful of decent photos (generally up to half of the photos I took were terrible!). It never occurred to me that I should take a photo of myself sometimes and the result is that I have almost no photos of myself between 18-30 years old, a period that is now seen as prime selfie time.

At work my network was pretty well restricted to the people who worked in the same office plus a few other contacts who I met now and again. When I was not in the office I was simply not available. Messages could be left with the switchboard operator or sent by post. If I needed an answer, however simple, and the person responsible was away on business or holiday I would simply have to try again next week. Collaboration with people in other cities or countries was unthinkable.

Of course our digital world has lead to a magnification of many negative human traits such as hatred, bullying, fraud and narcissism but at the same time has also enabled us to connect with people from all over the world, work together on projects that would have previously been impossible, share our ideas, learn more about other cultures and get a far broader perspective on the world than ever before. Both sides of the coin co-exist though of course we must work harder to promote the positive side. Digital technology is an enabler and the choice of how we use it is ours.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

MOOCs making an impact in developing countries

MOOCs have been criticised by many on the grounds that they have so far only attracted those who already have a university education and live in developed countries. Several studies have pointed in this direction and this has been used as evidence that MOOCs have largely missed their objective of making higher education more accessible to those who are for some reason unable to access traditional forms. However very few have so far actually studied MOOC participation and attitudes in developing countries to see whether they have made an impact or not.

A new study from the University of Washington, The Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative: An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, & South Africa, has done just that. They have studied 1400 MOOC learners from Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa and looked at completion rates, attitudes and satisfaction as well as asking employers about their views on MOOCs as valid credentials on the labour market. What they found was in stark contrast to the commonly held view that MOOCs have missed their mark.

Many of the key findings of this study are surprising. They challenge commonly held beliefs about MOOC usage, defying typical characterizations of how people in resource-constrained environments use technology for learning and employment purposes. In fact, some of the findings are so contrary to what has been reported in the United States and other developed environments that they raise questions necessitating further scrutiny.

Around 80% of the learners studied had low or medium income and the vast majority had low or intermediate digital skills levels. Furthermore almost half of the respondents received a certificate for their MOOC participation, far above normal levels, and many saw MOOC participation as a step on the way to recognised professional qualifications. The employers in the survey were generally positive to MOOCs and awareness was fairly high. They were not seen as equivalent to traditional education but at the same time were not simply dismissed. This all suggests that MOOCs are indeed making an impact where they are most needed and in the conclusion of the article the authors recommend further studies in this area.

In closing, the authors believe this study has made a significant contribution to understanding MOOC usage in less-developed country contexts that both provides stakeholders in workforce development and education with insights and offers a foundation on which future research can be built. The potential for increasing MOOC uptake and improving employment opportunities, especially for more marginalized populations, is clearly there. This is promising, and urges action since the data shows that MOOC users are savvy in using the knowledge they’ve gained from MOOCs to advance their professional aspirations.

I hope we see further work in this area because there is enormous potential for open education and we need to challenge the negative image of MOOCs only attracting middle class graduates from developed countries. If there are signs that they are offering opportunities to people without access to traditional higher education they need to be encouraged and brought to light. It is particularly interesting that most of the learners in the survey did not see technical issues and lack of infrastructure as major barriers to learning from MOOCs. Those who want to learn find a way round such issues in general.

However I also believe that open courses (not all open courses are MOOCs and not all MOOCs are open) can benefit far more people in both developed and developing countries if we can also offer them the right scaffolding. Organisations such as libraries, learning centres, vocational training colleges etc can offer face-to-face and/or online support groups for open learners, providing academic support, technical support, Englsih language support or the opportunity to discuss the course in their own language. The massive open arena of a MOOC can be very intimidating to those new to online learning and so maybe we can provide them with safe havens, small restrictive groups, for less confident learners to discuss problems with peers and in a familiar environment.

Garrido, M., Koepke, L., Andersen, S., Mena, A., Macapagal, M., & Dalvit, L. (2016). An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, & South Africa. Seattle: Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Teaching is teamwork

One of the biggest barriers to the uptake of educational technology is the simple fact that teachers are already overloaded and don't have time for professional development or testing new ideas and methods. Many already devote hours of unpaid overtime each week to keep up with marking, preparation and a never-ending stream of reports and administration. They realise that they may lack some necessary digital skills and that maybe they should spend more time redesigning their courses but good intentions generally come to nothing when the term starts and the day-to-day demands of teaching must get top priority. Furthermore, teaching is still seen by many as a solo activity where you are expected to be subject expert, classroom manager, IT-support, counsellor, administrator etc. The demands of teaching today mean that trying to combine all of these roles in one person simply leads to stress and feelings of inadequacy.

Teachers are stressed and the solution generally offered by governments is to hire more teachers. This is of course positive but a post by Willem van Valkenburg, We don't need more teachers, we need more course teams, offers a wise alternative solution, namely shifting the focus to giving teachers more support in the form of multi-skilled course teams. Team teaching has been around for many years but the teacher is only one part of the teams that Valkenburg proposes. Teachers need the support of an educational technologist, librarian, assessment expert, multimedia expert, student assistents and so on. One teacher simply cannot be expected to perform all of these roles, even if there are many who make valiant attempts to do so (often at a cost to themselves).

Investing in extra teachers in higher education might seem like a proper way of spending extra budget. Investing in better course teams will have a much bigger effect to unburden teachers. Don’t invest in extra teachers, make existing teachers much more effective by properly supporting them. So better value for money!

The key is a change of culture and such changes are the hardest to achieve. The solo teacher is a strong symbol in our society and is embedded in the way educational organisations are run. Moving towards a team model demands changes in how education is run; it affects budgets, quality systems, regulations, job descriptions and career development. Many attempts to move towards a team culture are thwarted by traditional structures and administrative restrictions. The role of support staff needs to be made more visible and rewarded accordingly. Many institutions have all of these support roles in place but they are thinly spread and the concept of a course team is not established in the institutional administration and culture. When teachers can focus on teaching and work as part of a qualified and recognised team then we can move forward. Until then we will simply keep trying to put out fires.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Unsocial networking

Have you noticed a change in your Facebook feed over the last couple of years? How many genuinely personal posts do you see per day? In the past we laughed at the idea of people posting what they had for breakfast or other daily trivia but today I welcome such posts because they connect me with a person. Sadly most posts in my feed are just soapboxing or commercial. Many simply broadcast "evidence" for their particular ideology and in many cases there is no real invitation to discussion. So I am well aware of the ideological convictions of many contacts (they remind me several times a day) but know little of the person behind. We've moved away from creating our own content to sharing others' content, preaching to the converted and at the unconverted. The network isn't really social anymore.

There was so much promise that social media would foster dialogue and collaboration over borders but sadly they are becoming echo-chambers and in some cases lawless arenas where bullies, bigots and extremists destroy all attempts at open discussion. Many people are bullied into leaving the main platforms like Facebook and Twitter and even if you're not subject to troll attacks there's simply not enough meaningful interaction to make it worthwhile staying. Instead of promoting freedom, openness and democracy, social media seem to be having the opposite effect. Of course there are still excellent groups and communities where genuine interaction thrives but these are mostly closed or restricted due to the threat of spammers and trolls.

This especially important in education where social media can offer exciting new oportunities for sharing knowledge, resources and experience, both for teachers and students. However I can understand many teachers' reluctance to use social media professionally when they see the excesses that are often spotlighted in the media. Even in professional circles the discussion can turn sour and it only takes one troll to spoil a whole community. Because of this it is essential that we discuss collaborative and participative literacy with colleagues and students and take care to create common ground rules for the communities we use.

I suspect it is too late to radically turn the tide but maybe we can think a little more about how we use social networks and try to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Here are some personal preferences and tips, in no particular order:
  • Don't preach. Interesting articles are fine but not the same topic all the time. You won't change my views by bombarding your contacts, they will simply switch you off.
  • Be personal sometimes. Tell about your life, small bits of trivia, with a bit of humour and self-distance.
  • Please don't use reposting options that use several platforms at once (eg everything you post on Twitter is instantly reposted on Facebook). It can be seen as spam. 
  • Develop your own basic social media plan. Decide on clear profiles for each of your accounts and stick to them, eg Twitter for work related material, Facebook for more personal content, Instagram for photos, LinkedIn for purely professional matters.
  • If you want to post daily photos and updates of your children, cats, gym visits, diet etc consider creating a group for this and inviting friends who you know will be interested. You can arrange your friends on facebook into different categories and then when you post you can choose whether to broadcast to all or to send only to one category (eg cat lovers). The rest of us don't mind occasional glimpses into these areas but not every day!
I confess I have broken these rules myself but I'm trying to clean up my act!
Do you recognize this trend? Any other tips?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

So, what have MOOCs ever done for us?

CC0 Public Domain by Chris Adamus on Unsplash
Whenever new ideas come to light there are always people who immediately dismiss them without really trying to even understand the innovation. Then when it doesn't immediately live up to initial promises they say "I told you so" and label it as yet another expensive flop. This is especially true in education and at the moment the MOOC is under heavy fire from all sides. Certainly MOOCs have not lived up to the overblown hype of the boom years (revolutionising higher education, providing free education for all etc) but those headlines were typical click bait from news media and corporations rather than the views of the teachers actually involved in designing and running the courses. Right now MOOCs are deep in Gartner's dreaded trough of disillusionment with many skeptics trumpeting their demise. However, as the Gartner curve predicts, the real development occurs after the hype has died and the skeptics have left it for dead.

MOOCs are not dead, they are morphing into new areas and development continues. So what have MOOCs ever done for us? Here are a few benefits and opportunities, though far from a comprehensive list.
  • If the hype had any benefit it at least put the whole field of online learning in the public spotlight and caught the attention of decision makers in a way that all the previous 15 years of online learning had failed to do. Admittedly it lead to some false conclusions, such as that online learning was invented by Stanford, MIT etc around 2011, but it put the discussion firmly on the agendas of most university boards.
  • The criticism that early xMOOCs were simply broadcast education using an instructivist pedagogy has resulted in many institutions trying different methods for increasing interactivity and personalisation at scale. This is still work in progress but many MOOCs are now able to offer more interactive and participatory elements. This experimentation also has relevance to for-credit courses where campus groups can number several hundred students. How can MOOC strategies benefit campus courses?
  • MOOCs still have enormous potential to provide greater outreach for institutions and to enhance lifelong learning. What is only now being investigated is that widened participation in higher education requires extensive scaffolding. Allowing local colleges, learning centres, libraries or companies to provide add-on services (both online and on-site) like study support, local discussion groups, local certification etc can enable more people to take a first step into higher education.
  • The high profile xMOOCs aren't going away any time soon and keep increasing as more and more universities join the major platforms. Even the criticised instructivist courses have a lot of faithful followers who want to quickly get an overview of a subject at their own pace and without any time-consuming group work or interaction. This idea of the MOOC as an interactive course book may not be pedagogically sophisticated but if it works for thousands of people then that's fine. As long as we have a choice.
  • The whole MOOC phenomenon is an investigation into the scalability of education. How massive can a course be? How do we approach mass education and how can we combine scale with engagement and interaction? This is a whole new avenue that is constantly evolving and will go on beyond the usefulness of the term MOOC (already past its sell-by date in my opinion).
  • All MOOCs are not the glossy high profile courses seen on the main platforms. The cMOOC variants have also been evolving but completely off the media radar and continue to offer collaborative learning to smaller specialist groups. They may not be massive but there are plenty of innovative courses that have developed from the constructivist/connectivist principles of the early MOOCs. Lessons learned here are also being applied in regular for-credit courses.
The problem is that innovation takes time to really kick in and there will always be teething trouble and hiccups along the way. Many times the innovation breaks through when applied to an area that the original iteration hadn't even considered. I still hope that the term MOOC can soon be filed in the archives and that we can move on to investigating how online learning can be developed in a wide variety of areas, both in combination with traditional forms and completely online. Some avenues for future development will be open and free, others will be commercial and for-profit. If we stop using the term MOOC things might get less confusing.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Music while you work

Homework in the Digital Age by ransomtech, on Flickr
"Homework in the Digital Age" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by ransomtech

It's hard to avoid music these days. It's pumped out in every shop, cafe, mall, hotel and gym and often I find it hard to concentrate on what I really want to do; talking with friends or reading if I'm on my own. Many places can't turn off the music because they get sponsored by local radio stations to play that particular station all day long whether the customers like it or not. We seem to have an acute fear of silence and so they play often extremely irritating music while you're having your hotel breakfast or trying to have a pleasant evening meal. TV and radio seem to think that certain types of programmes have to have music while someone's talking, such as every nature programme about sharks always has heavy metal music in the background or reports from many sports events have "cool" music so you can hardly hear the voiceover (maybe this is an age issue). Don't get me wrong, I love music and listen to it many hours a day but the important point is that I want to listen on my terms and not have it forced on me. Even if they play music I like I get irritated because I don't want to hear it right now.

So what about music while you're working? Does it really help us concentrate as many suggest? This is discussed in a Guardian article, Does music really help you concentrate?, and it seems to be a highly personal issue. If the task we're trying to focus on is not particularly interesting then any other stimuli will divert our attention: people passing by, any noise, conversations and especially the siren's of social media inviting us to check out what's happening. So we have some music in the background to somehow block out other distractors.

The trouble is, while our conscious attention is focused on the task in hand, the unconscious attention system doesn’t shut down; it’s still very much online, scanning for anything important in your peripheral senses. And if what we’re doing is unpleasant or dull – so you’re already having to force your attention to stay fixed on it – the unconscious attention system is even more potent. This means that a distraction doesn’t need to be as stimulating to divert your attention on to something else.

If it's someone else's music then I can't work at all and generally will move somewhere where I can be in peace. The crucial factor with background music is that it has to be self-inflicted. Whatever music the owner/employer selects will irritate someone so maybe the solution in the future is BYOM (Bring Your Own Music); listen to whatever you want as long as you do it with a headset and don't disturb anyone else. This is bad news for commercial radio stations but the fact is that most of us simply don't want to hear them.

I generally have calm classical music in the background when I'm working, preferably baroque, but I'm not sure if it helps me concentrate at all. I just put it on to create a cosy atmosphere. I've also tried discreet background music like Brian Eno or Philip Glass that just meanders quietly without ever really grabbing my attention and therefore perfect for purpose. Anything with a catchy rhythm or songs with lyrics I understand are impossible. However I suspect that silence is still the best precondition for really concentraing on a task and that our desire for music is simply a false consolation. How can we help youngsters who have grown up with a headset permanently hanging round their neck that silence is important? Many are so convinced that they need music that they've never even contemplated the alternative.

What about you?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Giving it all away

Photo: Samuel Zeller CC0
I found a nice testimony to the power of sharing in a post by a Swiss photographer called Samuel Zeller, Giving my images for free. He shares many of his best photos on a site called Unsplash and makes them freely available for copying and reusing under a Creative Commons CC0 license (public domain, author waives all rights). This may seem insane to many people when he could try to sell these images but his post makes a very strong case for the power of sharing. By sharing his work in this way he has increased his visibility as a photographer to a staggering level - 184 images have been viewed 63 million times and downloaded 613,000 times. His free photos have been used by major companies and he hasn't received a cent for this. However the free images link to his main portfolio and this leads to clients asking for special commissions and this is where he makes his money.

Why should I need to sell images if I have clients paying me to shoot specific images ? To me working for a client face to face is rewarding, way more than making money on digital sales to people I will never interact with.

It's not a case of giving everything away for free but sharing an impressive sample of your material that will attract attention and lead to more serious business later. It's basically the same the freemium model that many online tools and services offer; letting you use a basic version of the service for free in the hope that you will want to upgrade to the commercial version later.

I have benefitted enormously by sharing my lectures, blog posts, slideshows, articles etc. since they have lead to all sorts of people contacting me and asking if I can speak at their conference, write something for their journal or website or joining a project they are planning. Many of us work for smaller projects as volunteers in our free time, not only because it's interesting and fun but also because that volutary work usually pays off in the end through reputation building or commissioned work.

Of course not everyone has the luxury of being able to share everything they do. Bills have to be paid and those who share normally have a secure employment. The skill is realising that a certain level of sharing has more benefits than drawbacks. If you don't share anything and hope that people will pay to discover your work you will not get far today. Free sharing is your shop window. As Zeller concludes:

There’s no point in being talented if nobody can see what you do.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Online learning - where now?

At this time of year my news feeds dry up as most people in the business take their summer break so maybe it's a good time for me to take stock and reflect on the status of online learning today and speculate on future developments. I've been working with online learning for around twelve years now and whilst there has indeed been significant progress in some aspects we still get bogged down in the same discussions and preconceptions as we did when I started in 2004. Here's a list of recurring themes on this blog that I'm really getting tired of discussing (in no particular order).

Polarised either /or discussions
We are still trapped in endless discussions about whether online education is better or worse than traditional classroom education or whether e-books are better than print and so on. These discussions seldom lead anywhere except further entrenchment. Tony Bates outlines a much better approach in his current series of blog posts on online learning, see for example Online learning for beginners: 2. Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching? Most comparisons fail to compare like with like (ie same types of students with similar needs) and seldom see that the two modes suit different types of learners (young full-time campus students and older lifelong learners). The eternal debate on completion rates ignores the fact that distance learners have completely different life situations compared to full-time campus students who generally complete their courses regardless of the quality, simply because their funding depends on them passing. Generally these types of comparisons ask the wrong questions, see more below.

Traditional education as default
The burden of proof is overwhelmingly on the online side whilst few people investigate whether traditional methods really work as well as we think. Are classrooms always the best place for an open discussion when we know so well that these discussions favour those who like the spotlight and those who like to reflect before answering and feel intimidated in a group setting never say anything? Lectures have been central to higher education for centuries but does that mean that we learn from them? What types of learning do we test in exam halls? I would like to see an end to the burden of proof syndrome and instead accept that we need to integrate face-to-face and online to offer more nuanced approaches to education.

Asking the wrong questions
The fact that we're still falling into the traps in the previous points means that we keep asking the wrong questions. It's not about delivery method, technical platform or old versus new it's about designing education that can reach out to and empower as many learners as possible using all the tools, methods and pedagogies available today (including the traditional ones!). Once again Tony Bates offers two key questions for us to focus on:

Indeed, it is the variables or conditions for success that we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should be asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:
What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?

In terms of making decisions then about mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:
What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended or fully online learning respectively? 

One size does not fit all and the traditional system has failed millions of learners by only offering face-to-face education often at a price and only in certain locations. How can we offer more inclusive and personalised education by using the full spectrum of tools and methods available today? Getting the mix right and focusing on course design are what we need to work on today.

"The next big thing" syndrome
Every time a new device, app or tool hits the market the hype machine revs into action and soon we're drowning in posts and articles on how Google Apps/MOOCs/iPads/Facebook Live/Pokemon go/xxxx will revolutionise education. The revolution isn't going to happen but they all contribute to an evolution. The problem is that the commercial hype only increases the skepticism of many educators and prevents them from investigating the new phenomena with an open mind. As a result new technologies and methods are restricted to an edtech echo-chamber and have limited impact to the mainstream. I would like to see less hype and fireworks and more genuine curiosity and investigation before we make any claims about revolutions or disruption.

Structural barriers and the power of tradition
Many who want to be innovative are stifled by structural barriers and tradition. The increasing focus on results and accountability stifles innovation as institutions play safe to avoid failure, The tyrany of rankings mean that you focus on the criteria that help you rise in the ranking system and ignore those that do not, ie research versus teaching, campus versus distance etc, The traditional image of the university as a leafy campus full of young full-time students and high profile research is extremely hard to break, as most university websites show. Pedagogical innovation, outreach and lifelong learning simply don't win any gold stars and until they do we seem to be stuck in a mold, even though there are, of course, exceptions.

Even students can be barriers to innovation. They have been brought up on the traditional image of the university and actually expect the lectures and student life that they have seen so much in films and TV series. A teacher who abandons the traditional methods and is innovative can risk poor evaluations from students who expect to be taught (ie lectured to). 

Where do we go from here then? I don't see any radical changes in the near future but we need to get online into the mainstream and do it by asking new questions and simply not responding to either/or discussions. There are encouraging signs of a more integrated and nuanced aproach to online learning with several major international organisations taking the lead (UNESCO, OECD, European Commission, EUA and others). There are now many excellent reports, initiatives and funding schemes from these and other organisations and there are plenty of enthusiastic educators involved in projects. The barriers tend to appear in the space between these two extremes: governments, national authorities and educational leaders. For bottom-up to connect with top-down you need to work on getting the middle layers on board.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pokemon and source criticism

It's maybe a sign of the times that in a summer of conflict, terrorist attacks and political turmoil, millions of people are running around searching for virtual cartoon characters. I admit I find it hard to relate to Pokemon Go, just as the first wave of Pokemon in the mid-nineties escaped me, but one positive result of the trend is that it will be much easier to talk about augmented reality from now on. AR is already being used in education, simulation, tourism and gaming but Pokemon will push it into the mainstream and I expect to see a boom in the field in the coming year.

However maybe we can see Pokemon Go as more than just a fun game but a useful metaphor for the times we live in. We no longer see the world as it is (maybe we never did) but our view of reality is augmented or filtered through different lenses; media channels, politicians, populists, advertising etc. Every day we are met by competing and often wildly differing narratives where demons, trolls, half-truths and fantasy appear before us. It's all too easy to mix reality with these superimposed virtual figures. We need to raise our awareness that the information we get is augmented by the channel that conveys it. Educators need to focus more than ever on source criticism and the ability to assess the credibility of information. Indeed in my view this is the most important skill in all levels of education today. We need to be able to distinguish between the real world and the Pokemon figures that appear to inhabit it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Roadmaps for online learning

Navigator by Tabsinthe, on Flickr
"Navigator" (CC BY 2.0) by Tabsinthe

There is no shortage of trend reports and guides on the future of online learning but sadly too few institutions who are using them as a base for their strategic planning. The challenges ahead for higher education are complex and require new approaches and innovative solutions in a sector that is so deeply rooted in tradition and history. This tradition coupled with the high level of respect and credibility that university qualifications still command makes it all too easy to think that a business-as-usual strategy is the safest course to plot.

The Canadian educational technology support organisation Contact North published earlier this year an excellent trend overview entitled The future of online learning. This describes the increased complexity of today's educational landscape with new actors, models and credentials jostling for attention and challenging the traditional setup. At the same time universities are under increasing financial and regulatory pressure to be more efficient, result-oriented and accountable with a wider than ever range of students with high expectations in terms of personalisation, flexibility and work relevance. The report examines what this means for higher education institutions and notes that a new ecosystem is developing to cater for a much more diversified and demanding target group. The gold standard of the university degree will be challenged and augmented by new types of credentials including micro-credentials like badges. Short and flexible programmes with strong links to workplace experience will allow many to combine work and study without the need to spend several years on campus. This will demand new methods for assessment, recognition of prior learning and the development of new forms of quality assurance. This doesn't mean that the traditional university model is going to be overthrown but it does mean that there will be more alternative paths to learning.

Source: UOC eLearn Center, Witthaus, Padilla, Gu├árdia and Campillo (2016, p.6). 
An example of how to use these trends and feed them into a university's strategic development is seen in the results of the FUTURA (Future of University Teaching: Update and a Roadmap for Advancement) project. This describes the process of applying trends in online learning to teaching practice and university strategy at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC); read more in an article from the UOC's eLearn Center, IDEAS: a new framework for next generation pedagogy.

FUTURA identified pedagogical trends and innovations globally, and analysed related institutional examples. The FUTURA report proposes a framework for describing current and emerging practice in teaching in online higher education under the acronym, IDEAS.

The IDEAS model (explained in the image on the right) provides a sound basis for re-examining pedagogical development at any university and reinforces most of the conclusions of Contact North's analysis. Everything described here is already taking place but mostly in a fragmented way through projects or innovative faculty with few institutions developing a comprehensive strategy. I suspect that the prime movers are distance education universities since their focus is online but campus universities ignore this at their peril.

These alternative paths are already attracting an increasing number of school leavers who are becoming less likely to head straight to university campus. A new article in eCampus News, Could these 3 burgeoning nontraditional pathways be a boon for traditional institutions? describes how many American students are trying one or a combination of the following before considering campus:
  • a gap year or two with internships and self-directed learning
  • online studies via open courses
  • getting hard skills by practical experience
“College costs keep growing and student debt is over one trillion dollars,” explained Richard Wang, CEO at Coding Dojo in a statement. “These alternative education options can help keep student debt under control, while providing individuals with real-world experience and skills employers are looking for in job candidates.”

Trends are becoming reality though not always in a revolutionary and disruptive way. New opportunities and pathways emerge often largely unnoticed until they reach a level that cannot be ignored. I have previously likened these changes to a glacier; the landscape is being radically changed but the changes and the pace of change are not always evident to those who are standing on the glacier itself. Only when the glacier melts will we see the full extent of the change. Those institutions who realise they are on a glacier and start changing now will be able to meet the challenges ahead. The most dangerous option is business as usual, thinking that the ground under our feet is solid.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

How would you like your course?

CC0 Public Domain on Pixabay
Pretty well every MOOC provider today builds in some kind of arena for interaction and collaboration and although many participants still operate in self-study mode there are many who see the course as a networking opportunity and simply learn better in the company of peers. Interaction and collaboration have long been seen as the key to raising the completion rates in MOOCs. The problem is that we all have our own preferences when it comes to interaction; some enjoy synchronous video or audio meetings whilst other prefer asynchronous chat or discussion threads. We also have cultural differences in how willing we are to discuss with strangers and seeing learning as a collaborative process. Add to this the linguistic difficulties many non-native English speakers experince especially when entering an advanced academic discussion with highly eloquent native speakers. Just offering an arena and hoping people will discuss simply doesn't work. But maybe if we first ask the participants how they would like to learn?

A new study from Penn State University, highlighted in an article on Campus Technology, Grouping MOOC Students by Communication Mode Doesnt Help Completion, offered MOOC participants a choice of how they would like to interact with peers in their MOOC and put them into study groups according to those preferences.

A team of seven researchers undertook an examination of participants in a Penn State MOOC, "Creativity, Innovation and Change," which was delivered on Coursera and drew 200,000 people from 190 countries in 2013 and 2014. Volunteers in the course were asked to fill out a pre-course survey online to provide demographic information and designate their learning preferences: Did they prefer to be part of a group that used asynchronous text posts, synchronous text chats, or synchronous video and audio as their primary channels for communication?

The results were not particularly encouraging as far as raising completion rates was concerned but the study does offer new insights into interaction preferences. For example participants over 40 were more likely to complete the course than younger participants and female participants were more interested in study groups than males. Further study in more courses will hopefully be made.

Statistically significant relationships were found between learners’ preferred communication modes and their level of English proficiency, gender, level of education, and age. Although placing learners in groups based on their preferences and introducing them to each other did not improve course performance or completion, our findings on preferred communication modes, combined with more formal instruction of how to function as group members may prove to enhance learning and engagement in MOOCs.

Since MOOCs are free and without formal demands it is unlikely that completion rates will ever be particularly high but I'm sure that creating a sense of community is a key factor to helping more participants stay the course. One area that needs to be developed is not just asking about collaboration preferences but providing support on collaborative literacy. Many people simply don't know how to work collaboratively, especially online and some kind of pre-course guide on how to get the most out of your course followed by a choice of participation options could help a lot. Study groups could be offered around synchronous or asynchronous interaction, self-study, geographic location, native language or a mix. Can we somehow offer supportive and safe study groups as a complement to massive openness then maybe that will lead to more people benefitting from this type of education.

Exploring the communication preferences of MOOC learners and the value of preference-based groups: Is grouping enough? Qing Zhang, Kyle L. Peck , Adelina Hristova, Kathryn W. Jablokow, Vicki Hoffman, Eunsung Park, Rebecca Yvonne Bayeck.  Educational Technology Research and Development pp 1-29 (March 2016).

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Where do old MOOCs go when they die?

After a MOOC is over the course material and the learners' own material are available for future reference but the the question is for how long? How long can old courses be archived and should there be a best before date? Questions like this have arisen after Coursera's announcement that they are migrating to a new platform. The new platform will certainly offer many new features and better user experience but there is a little catch as outlined in an article on Class Central's blog, Coursera is Removing Hundreds of Courses. Here is a Guide To Get Them While You Can. The old platform will be shut down completely on 30 June and not all courses will be migrated to the new one. Class Central claims that hundreds of courses will be affected whereas Cousera's blog reassures users that losses will be minimal:

There are a few dozen courses on the old platform that will not migrate to the new platform, and thus will not be available after June 30th. These include courses that are out of date (e.g., medicine and technology courses that do not reflect recent research and development breakthroughs), courses that have been updated and relaunched under another title on the new platform, and a few courses that our university partners have chosen to discontinue for other reasons.

The Class Central guide however advises users who want to save the course material and own work from the endangered courses to do so as soon as possible since there is no indication from Coursera as to whether they will be migrated at all. There's a good step-by-step guide for downloading the courses so if you want access to any old Coursera courses, please check the guide as soon as possible.

MOOC critics will certainly voice concerns about the risk of courses and learners' material disappearing like this (though it must be stressed that it is unclear exactly whether the courses will disappear of not). Certainly the risk of all "free" services is that you are at the mercy of the service provider and there is always the risk that terms can change at short notice, price tags get added or the provider goes bust. Coursera are making a major upgrade of their service and have decided, along with the responsible universities, not to migrate courses that are no longer relevant. Maybe MOOC providers should have an archiving policy clearly stating how long material will be available and what rights the participants has in terms of accessing their material after the course is over and making it easy for them to download what they want to keep for the future. Alternatively let the responsible university take care of archiving.

Then again is this so unusual really? How long are students able to keep their LMS log-in after their degree is completed and can they easily download the course material? Universities are legally bound to archive old courses for several years but I'm not sure if any have archiving policies for MOOCs. As long as MOOCs are free and non-credit then maybe you can't expect them to be accessible forever but now that credits and other credentials are being awarded as well MOOCs being presented for recognition of prior learning it's time to develop archiving policies. A course shouldn't simply disappear.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Taking charge of your professional development

For many education professionals competence development is still mostly locked into attending internal training sessions either on campus or at a conference centre before the start of the new academic year. Sometimes these sessions are excellent and many can gain inspiration from them but often they miss the mark. The session can never be relevant for everyone; some already know what is being taught and others find it completely over their heads. Competence development is highly personal and so a classroom approach is always going to fall short. Maybe the most valuable group trining initiatives are workshops on how to take charge of your owbn professional development. Instead of waiting for a suitable on-site course to be arranged we can all benefit from learning how to find educational resources, join communities of practice, develop personal learning networks, find open courses to join amd develop skills in online collaboration. The range of opportunities is vast but sadly very few teachers are aware of them so awareness raising workshops are a good start.

Steven W Anderson writes about this in a recent post, Taking Control Of Your Professional Development. He recommends teachers to widen their horizons by reading educational blogs, attending free webinars, joining Twitter chat sessions and attending edcamps. The links he provides are all USA-oriented but similar resources and communities are available in most countries. The key skill in professional development is learning how to learn online. Professional development is available to all if you know where to find it.

The fact of the matter is educators, no matter their position, can no longer rely on their schools and districts to provide the targeted professional development every educator needs and deserves.

There are of course many more sources of inspiration and here are my additions to Steven's list.

Social networks.
Search for teacher groups on Facebook or Google+, both in your own country and internationally. There are thousands of professional groups that you can join but the trick is to find the ones that are relevant for you and are active. Check the group and see how active it is and whether the discussions are relevant for you before asking to join. Most professional groups are protected to some extent and you have to ask for membership but most let you view their activity without being a member. If the administrator sees that you are serious you will be admitted. Here it is important that you have a good profile description and photo that show you are real. Spammers normally have bizarre profile photos, no friends and no signs of interaction with others.

There are many benefits of participating in such professional groups. You widen your professional network, participate in a wider discussion and if you share your knowledge and help others new opportunities will emerge such as invitations to join a project, develop a course, write an article etc. Many people join communities as passive members but the fact is that the more you put in the more you get out. Get involved and see where it takes you. If the group gets too quiet just leave and find a more lively group. If you're wary of Facebook or Google+ then there are thousands of professional groups and networks on LinkedIn. Just search and join the ones that appeal.

Open courses
There are thousands of free open courses out there and not all are called MOOCs. There are lots of open courses for teacher development and the best place to start is to search on MOOC aggregators like Class Central, EMMA or Openuped where you can find courses from most of the major consortia. Some courses are mostly guided self-study but most offer discussion forums and other opportunities for interaction and once again getting involved means you can build your international contact network. The main thing to remember is not to take these courses lightly. Many demand at least 8 hours of study per week and if you want to learn you need to make an effort. Still too many people assume that an online course is for some strange reason a light option.

There are also many open online courses that don't mention that four-letter acronym, offering both self-study and collaborative models, such as Peer 2 Peer University, OERuniversity, Udemy and many more.

Open educational resources
There is of course a vast range of OER that can provide inspiration and professional development. The difficulty is that all this courseware is distributed over hundreds of repositories and it's hard to make fully aggregated searches. Furthermore OER tend to be single resources that don't link to related material so putting them together into a coherent self-study course structure may not be easy. If you looking for resources in English try searching for "teaching" or "pedagogy" in the Open Education Consortium search function. Another source of lectures and course material from thousands of institutions worldwide is iTunesU and you can download the material free to any device though you first need to download the iTunes app.  Furthermore many universities share their lectures and course material on open courseware sites like MIT Open courseware, Open University's Open Learn etc. There are of course similar resource banks in most countries and in many languages.

Monday, June 6, 2016

When does a MOOC become a regular online course?

What's the difference between a MOOC and a regular online course? The answer seemed obvious a couple of years ago and most institutions made it very clear that the two should not mix. MOOCs had no entry requirements or tuition fees and only gave certificates of completion, often without even the logo of the university on the certificate, to ensure that they should not be seen by employers as university qualifications.  Today, however, as more and more universities are offering MOOCs for credit by offering proctored examinations either on a campus or online, the two forms are beginning to merge. In addition the main consortia are packaging courses into specialisations or nanodegrees with graded final project assignments that lead to new forms of credentials that are not credit equivalent but may form a new layer of credentials below degree level.

University of Leeds and the Open University recently announced that they will be offering MOOCs for credit through the FutureLearn consortium according to an article in the Guardian, Moocs to earn degree credits for first time in UK at two universities. This will costs you a bit but less than taking the course on campus.

To complete programmes that attract an academic credit or offer a qualification, students may have to pay and pass an assessment module. Universities will award credit against the grade achieved which will then count towards a degree ... In the Leeds offering, for example, each course certificate will cost £59 and there are five taught courses; the sixth assessment course, which leads to 10 credits, is priced at £250 – making a total cost of £545 – which will also cover access to online library content.

Arizona State University have a scheme called Global Freshman Academy on the EdX platform giving students the chance to replace their first year of study with a selection of MOOCs and those who pass can then apply to start their campus programme from the start of year two. Here we see MOOCs doing the job of regular online courses so where's the difference? The outcomes and content are converging but the openness of application process is what differentiates the two forms. ASU are opening up entry to study by allowing anyone to start their MOOCs and then seeing who succeeds before accepting them on to year two. Similar thinking lies behind the two UK examples.

Basically regular for-credit courses are starting to absorb some of the MOOC concept. The effect could be that students will be able to test higher education by taking a selection of first year courses and deciding during the course whether they want to take the examination for credit. The selection process is thus moved to the the end of each course. Many will still choose to complete the course without credit as pure competence development whilst others will opt for credit and continue towards full-time study. The entry to university studies can either be a full commitment from the start with full-time campus studies from year one but also an alternative path that is more open and flrxible and most importantly less expensive. Four year campus studies is simply too expensive in many countries and inconvenient for many older students who do not wish to move from their home areas due to work and family. For them any way of cutting the time on campus and increasing flexibility is very welcome.

I expect to see more for-credit courses taking a MOOC approach to recruitment by opening up admission and then allowing the most motivated the option of paying to take the examination. This doesn't mean that regular online courses will simply become like MOOCs but they will adopt some of features just as MOOCs (or whatever they will be called in the future) will adopt many featurs of regular courses. The interest in MOOCs as pure lifelong learning will continue but only if the institutions providing them can find a sustainable financing model and an alignment with the mainstream would seem the safest route.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

What do the students think? It depends on what you mean by student.

What is a student? Despite the growth in lifelong learning I think the word still conjures up the traditional image of the 18-22 year-old studying on campus. They have invested heavily in the traditional model of higher education and decided to devote 3-5 years of their lives to full-time study where they expect the full package: lectures, tutorials, campus life, parties, network building and hundreds of hours writing essays and reading course literature. This is still how society views higher education but universities today also cater for a rapidly growing number of learners who are well over 25, don't go near a campus and do not even identify themselves as students. These two categories have very different perspectives on learning; one group see their studies as a full-time occupation that they have invested heavily in and the other see their studies as an extra element in their busy lives but not the most important.

So many studies want to measure student attitudes to online learning but it all depends which students you ask. This is clear from a new report by Blackboard, Redefining Value for Online Students, that asked a wide range of students about their experience and views of online courses in comparison to their campus courses. I cannot see whether all those questioned were full-time campus students but from the answers I suspect they were. The answers are summarised in the report as follows:

1. When students take a class online, they make a tacit agreement to a poorer experience which undermines their educational self worth. 
2. Students perceive online classes as a loophole they can exploit that also shortcuts the “real” college experience. 
3. Online classes don’t have the familiar reference points of in-person classes which can make the courses feel like a minefield of unexpected difficulties. 
4. Online students don’t experience social recognition or mutual accountability, so online classes end up low priority by default. 
5. Students take more pride in the skills they develop to cope with an online class than what they learn from it. 
6. Online classes neglect the aspects of college that create a lasting perception of value.

The students in the survey repeatedly compare online courses with campus and often focusing on the dangers of self-study such as social isolation and the lower levels of support and group dynamics. Certainly there are plenty of online courses that fit this description but there are also many campus courses that are deficient in similar ways. Well designed online courses can certainly offer an engaging and supportive learning environment where groups can interact both synchronously and asynchronously. Online groups can also become extremely close and many choose to continue their collaboration after the course has ended. Sadly the students in this survey do not seem to have experienced this side of online learning and base their judgements on poorly designed self-study courses. 

In my experience many campus students are rather conservative in their attitudes to online learning, probably because they are not the main beneficiaries. They see online courses as a threat to the campus experience they value so highly and are understandably worried that online learning means even less contact with faculty and more self-study. In addition the old reputation of online courses being a poor second choice alternative seems hard to erase. Most online learners however combine study with work, family and a social life that is not based around classmates. They don't identify themselves as students and generally have a fairly low sense of loyalty to the institution offering the course they study. Online studies are their only option and they judge their courses on their own merits rather than comparing them with the full-time campus model.

The conclusions of this study do show that the public image of online education is still rather poor and is still seen by many as a second rate option. Clearly quality can be raised especially in terms of how technology is used to facilitate collaboration, interaction and support. Ironically the reason many online courses are seen as one-way communication and self study (especially many MOOCs) is that many of them have simply adopted the information transfer pedagogy so often used in traditional campus teaching. Digital arenas can actually offer much richer opportunities for collaboration and discussion than physical spaces and when they do so the results are excellent. The fact that many courses fail to fully exploit these features is not the fault of the technology but the low awareness of the opportunities technology can offer.