Thursday, February 22, 2018

Open distance learning is thriving in Pakistan

The more you travel the more you learn that the world is so much more complex and fascinating than you could ever grasp by staying at home. By meeting and discussing with people you realise that we all have so much in common even if we live in different circumstances and have been raised in different cultural frameworks. Our news feeds present an extremely narrow window on the world and only by visiting and meeting people can you uncover some of the complexities and begin to build bridges. The only way forward is through meetings and discussion rather than confrontation.

I have just returned from Islamabad, Pakistan, where I was privileged to be invited to speak at a conference held at the world's fourth largest university, Allama Iqbal Open University. The image of Pakistan presented in western media is rather negative and that makes me curious to find out more. The contrast between media image and reality could not have been greater and I was warmly welcomed everywhere by friendly and very gifted colleagues. Even when wandering around the city and the sights there were always people who wanted to take selfies with us and there was a genuine curiosity to find out who we foreigners were.

Allama Iqbal Open University, founded in 1974, is the second oldest open university in the world (after the UK pioneer) and has an annual enrollment of 1.3 million students, 56% of whom are women. Their main objective is to provide education for all those who would not otherwise have access, in particular the rural and urban poor, a particularly marginalised and massive group in Pakistan. The rural/urban student balance is 58% against 42%. Anyone can study and students can also study at their own pace since the majority of them also work. Women in poor rural areas are a particular focus area and many qualify for free tuition, as do prisoners and transgenders (possibly a unique initiative in higher education). The university's social responsibility agenda is impressive and demonstrates a commitment to transforming the country by offering education for all.

Textbooks everywhere
The logistics of offering education at all levels, from basic literacy training to doctorate level, to over a million students spread all over a vast country like Pakistan are daunting indeed. They do this by operating both as an online institution and by the massive physical distribution of books and course materials by post. They have the largest publishing house in the country with over 1.8 million books printed per year and the Islamabad campus has, not surprisingly, its own postal office sorting office to deal with the astounding volume of parcels. The printing, binding and distribution operations are still very labour intensive and the equipment was rather old but that made it all the more impressive. We toured the printing and distribution facility where roughly 120 employees make sure that the right books and materials are delivered to the right student at an institution with such a vast number of admissions each term. Although so much of the process is still manual, the address labels have digital codes and students can track their parcels on the website if they have access. 
Of course, a large number of the students do not have access to the net and so the textbooks are vital. Those who do have access can read the books online since they are all available as open educational resources, something rather few western institutions can boast.

Radio studio
There is also a large media production and educational technology department producing video lectures, discussions and seminars as well as audio material to supplement the course material offered via Moodle. The university produces TV and radio programmes that are broadcast nationally as well as running an FM radio station.

Distance and online education requires support, especially when so many of the students are completely unfamiliar with this form of education, and the university has built up an extensive support organisation that reaches out to even the most remote regions.  This consists of 9 regional campuses, 33 regional centres, 41 approved study centres (for face-to-face programs) and 138 part-time regional coordinating offices. Here students can meet for workshops, classroom sessions, tutoring and examination. The physical meeting spaces are essential for student success because few would be able to complete the courses solely by self-study.

The conference I attended had the theme of connecting collaborative communities and there is a clear commitment from the top management to move towards more collaborative forms of online education. I sensed a clear interest among the faculty to adapt teaching practices to accommodate more collaborative digital tools and platforms. This starts with teachers learning by collaborating, both within the university and internationally and I hope that we three invited guest speakers were able to contribute to this process.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Is technology making us hyper-social?

Our relationship with digital devices, especially mobiles, is a complex one. We love them and use them constantly to communicate, find information and organise our lives. At the same time we are aware of our over-dependence and have a nagging feeling that we have possibly gone too far. We worry about our children's technology addiction and propose banning mobiles from school, the one place where they could learn to use those mobiles more wisely. Many of those who propose such bans are extremely active themselves in social media and presumably seldom turn off their own mobiles. Some say that technology has made us less social but it seems that the reverse is true.

Use of technology is often portrayed in the media as an addiction but the question is whether it is the technology or a particular device that we are addicted to or something else. A new study from McGill University in Canada, Hypernatural monitoring: a social rehearsal account of smartphone addiction, suggests that we are actually addicted to social interaction and that digital devices are simply channels for this need. The paper is also summarised in a post on the site Futurity, We’re ‘addicted’ to socializing—not our smartphones.

While admitting that today's hyper-connected technology contributes to over-dependency, the authors' study indicates that our real "addiction" is the human need to monitor and be monitored by others. We thrive on acknowledgement and recognition and so every like, comment and message fuels this desire. Before digital media we were dependent on the greetings, smiles and nods we receive from family, friends and colleagues every day but now we have added hundreds more potential sources of recognition pleasure to that list. Digital technology magnifies and exploits an already existing need. Our brains' reward system is running on overdrive and that leads to addictive behaviour.

“In post-industrial environments where foods are abundant and readily available, our cravings for fat and sugar sculpted by distant evolutionary pressures can easily go into insatiable overdrive and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease… the pro-social needs and rewards [of smartphone use as a means to connect] can similarly be hijacked to produce a manic theater of hyper-social monitoring,”

The article stresses that the desire for social interaction is, of course, natural and that we need to become more aware of our excessive dependence on technology and try to control it. We need to discuss technology use more openly in classrooms, workplaces and at home and agree to common principles such as switching off the stress of notifications and developing attention strategies (switching off distractions when focusing on a demanding task). We also need to be more aware about how manipulative technology can be; that apps and tools are designed to be addictive (often referred to as sticky). Simply banning devices is just sweeping the problem under the carpet. We need to become more aware of the issues and how we can use digital devices and technology responsibly. If schools and colleges ignore this issue where else will we learn these skills?

Veissière, S. P. and Stendel, M. (2018) Hypernatural monitoring: a social rehearsal account of smartphone addiction. Frontiers in psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00141

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The complexity of the flipped classroom

Like many popular concepts, the flipped classroom model suffers from having a catchy name that invites over-simplification and the aura of being some kind of miracle cure. The idea of devoting classroom time to active learning and discussion rather than passive consumption is not new but the flipped classroom is about the application of digital media to offer pre-recorded lectures, demonstrations and instructions as preparation for the classroom collaboration. Flipping means that some content delivery is delivered asynchronously and that synchronous meetings focus on applying that information and developing skills.

One over-simplification is that the method is simply about teachers prerecording all input in video format. I would say that some content should still be delivered live since there is often a need for direct contact and the teacher is able to modify the delivery if the class seems confused. There is nothing wrong with a well-delivered and engaging lecture as long as it isn't an everyday occurrence. Similarly there is nothing in the rule book that says that the teacher has to record all the videos; there is a wealth of open educational resources that are free to use. Getting input from a variety of sources can widen the scope of the lesson and open students' eyes to different interpretations of the same topic. Audio input can also be used since it's easier to record and easier to listen to on a mobile device. You can even flip the classroom by asking students to read and reflect on a text! Basically the flipped classroom is just a snappy headline for a more complex process; developing a student-oriented approach to teaching and learning, helping students to move from consumption to active collaborative learning.

This complexity is discussed in a new special issue of the journal Education SciencesThe Flipped Classroom in Higher Education: Research and Practice. One of the articles, by Shawn R. SimonsonTo Flip or Not to Flip: What Are the Questions? looks at barriers to flipping the classroom and, with reference to previous research, sees the following factors:

Situational factor examples were content coverage expectations, department norms, and infrastructure. Illustrations of instructor factors were time constraints, lack of experience, and preferred teaching methods. Student factors were responsibility, intention, motivation, and resistance.

Simonson presents a table to help teachers decide when or not to flip, taking all these factors into consideration. If the course and examination are heavily based on content delivery then the flipped classroom may not be very effective since the students will be focused on learning as much of the content as possible and the examination method rewards the demonstration of content mastery. This could be the case in basic courses in, say, medicine where students need to learn essential facts that underpin the rest of the degree programme. Another barrier is if traditional lecturing is the institutional norm then teachers will be reluctant to risk trying out new methods. To successfully flip the classroom teachers need time, support and resources and a poorly implemented version can have negative consequences for all concerned. Similarly if students expect to be fed with the facts they need to learn to pass the exam, then the flipped classroom model may cause frustration and increased stress since it generally demands more time and effort. 

The introductory article of the special issue, Flipped Classroom Research: From “Black Box” to “White Box” Evaluation, by Christian Stöhr and Tom Adawia of Chalmers university of technology, proposes a more nuanced approach to evaluating interventions, realist evaluation. This involves asking the following questions:
  • For whom will the intervention work and not work, and why? 
  • In what contexts will the intervention work and not work, and why?
  • What are the main mechanisms by which we expect the intervention to work?
  • If the intervention works, what outcomes will we see?
These questions should guide any teacher thinking of adopting a flipped classroom approach, or any new approach for that matter. Instead of rushing towards a new promising model we need to have these questions in mind and be able to adjust our practice as our exploratory attempts develop. The flipped classroom is one of many options available to teachers and the skill is deciding which methods best match the desired outcomes. Simonson's conclusion sums up the complexity that lies behind the flipped classroom.

Thus, the instructor who is considering flipping the classroom should contemplate the course content and at what level they want their students to understand that content. The situation in which they teach is important as external expectations and resources can make flipping the classroom more or less challenging. Motivating and appropriately challenging students is also critical and worthy of reflection. Perhaps most importantly, the instructor needs to determine their own willingness and ability to change pedagogies. Only when the complex interplay of these factors has been considered can a balanced decision be made and the learner-centered environment optimized.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Online learning - the road to credibility

CC0 Public domain on Pexels
With the abundance of online education, including MOOCs, it is easy to assume that global online education is already established and recognised. However, an article by Christopher Ziguras in University World NewsWill global online higher education ever take off?suggests that online education is still struggling to gain credibility in many countries and that the numbers of students taking online courses in countries other than their own is actually rather small. Certainly there has been a massive growth in online education in recent years but it's not as international as we may think.

... when we look at cross-border education, the scale of fully online provision is still miniscule. There are around 150,000 students outside Australia enrolled in Australian qualifications: two-thirds in university programmes and the rest in vocational and upper secondary qualifications.

Virtually all of the school and vocational education students, and more than 90% of those in higher education, are studying on a branch campus or with a local partner institution. And yet for decades we have seen predictions that students who cannot travel abroad to study, either due to cost or commitments at home, would seek out foreign study options online.

Enrolling in an online degree at a foreign institution is often a complicated process since the enrollment procedure is aimed at students from that country and naturally the forms are in that country's official language(s). On top of that are the fees which in many cases are higher than studying at a local institution. Those who do enroll from abroad tend to be citizens of that country living elsewhere and who know the national education system. In the EU the Bologna agreement has to some extent opened up European higher education but applying to study online at a university in another country is still not simple. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this, such as virtual mobility programmes where students can attend online courses at partner universities as a for-credit part of their own studies (see for example the recent OUVM project). However, the numbers of transnational students in online courses are still more exception than norm.

Universities with a large international outreach have their own campuses in strategic locations around the world or run courses in partnership with local institutions. Here they can blend traditional campus teaching with online elements from the host institution and offer international degrees without students having to leave their own country.

The main sticking point for fully online education, according to the article, is credibility.

Many governments, including China, India and Vietnam, refuse point blank to recognise foreign degrees undertaken online, citing a range of concerns. They believe the quality of online study is inferior, legitimate providers are difficult to distinguish from online degree mills and they perceive online student fraud to be rife.

Despite international quality guidelines and labels for online education the whole area is tainted by the abundance of fraudulent practices, bogus universities and degree mills. Furthermore there are the recurring concerns about the risks of plagiarism and cheating in online courses. All these issues are being addressed and solutions are emerging but the road to credibility will take time. Above all we need wider adoption of internationally recognised quality labels for online courses to make it easy to distinguish between quality education and fraud. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

New Twitter guide for educators

Photo: David Truss, with permission
Twitter is still a tricky tool to introduce to teachers. Sadly their general impression of Twitter is negative, associating it with fake news, trolls, celebrity trivia and toxic political mud-slinging. Creating an account means flinging yourself into the gladiatorial arena and opening yourself to attacks from all sorts of monsters. Persuading understandably skeptical colleagues that Twitter can also be used to create a valuable professional network and even community of practice is definitely not easy.

Twitter isn't an easy tool to adopt and the rewards are long rather than short term; basically you need a critical mass before the benefits become obvious. You need to follow people and people need to follow you and until you build up a network you'll be tweeting into the wind and no-one will know you exist. Like all forms of network building it takes time, patience and a lot of trial and error. That's why you need a clear reason for using Twitter and most importantly you need the help and encouragement of an experienced user.

If you're curious enough to give Twitter a chance and you want learn how to get started in a systematic and informed way then I can recommend a very practical guide in the form of a free e-book written by David Truss, Twitter EDU - Your One-Stop-All-You-Need-To-Know-Guide to Twitter. This book can be downloaded to your laptop, tablet or mobile in a number of formats and takes you through all the basics of using Twitter, essential rules of Twitter netiquette, finding people to follow and building an educational network. To get the most out of the guide you should create a Twitter account before you start and then you learn to tweet by tweeting for real. The guide can save you a lot of time, effort and despair since it focuses on good practice, respect for others, giving credit and responsible networking. You also get tips on how to spot and avoid typical spammers and time-wasters. Even if you are an experienced user like me, you can benefit from a quick browse through the guide.

One small line of wisdom explains why attitude is so important for success with Twitter, or any digital tool for that matter:

“If you think Twitter is ‘dumb’ or ‘a waste of time’, well then it will be.”

Although Twitter is certainly full of highly toxic and dangerous rubbish you can easily avoid it by following trusted colleagues and communities. My own feed is almost exclusively about education and every day I find links and ideas that are extremely useful in my work. I've also made friends and valuable contacts through Twitter and have met some of them in person. As David points out in the book you need to view your Twitter feed as a never-ending stream of information that you dip into now and then rather than trying to read everything; as your feed grows you very quickly realise the impossibility of this approach. Dip in a few times a day and see what's floating by just now. Forget what went past in the time you were away, what you don't see you don't miss.

But the real key to success with Twitter is engagement. To get something out you have to contribute. If you show that you provide useful information, ideas and tips then people will follow you. If you show your appreciation for the information you receive your reputation will grow and you will widen your network. Actually the normal principles of human communication apply in digital spaces, contrary to the common myth that digital communication is somehow virtual, cyber or not real life. Being kind and respectful pays off, even in Twitter!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Silent learners guide

For the past couple of years I've been involved in a Nordic project looking at how to be more responsive to the needs of silent learners, especially in online education. We started out with the notion of lurkers, a rather pejorative term that assumes some kind of suspicious behaviour, but quickly realised that being silent does not mean that learning is not taking place. Many are working, not lurking.

Education today focuses so much on active student involvement and collaboration and it's easy to forget that a great deal of learning takes place in silence and alone. Have we actually neglected this aspect of learning in our enthusiasm for activity and engagement? Furthermore, there are many learners who learn best that way and avoid group work and collaboration as much as possible. This can be due to shyness, insecurity or simply because group activities take up so much valuable time, sometimes involving conflicts and compromise. Collaboration is an extremely important skill to learn but there are different ways to collaborate. We need to give space to the silent learners or introverts and let them contribute in their own way. They may not be so vocally active in the brainstorming or creative activities but they may be excellent at note-taking, summarising and analysis. We need to empower the silent learners and let their skills enrich the collaborative process but we also need to help more vocal and active learners to develop their own silent learning skills. In order to let the quiet learners participate in group work the vocal members must develop their listening skills, deep reading skills and their ability to observe and summarise.

One tangible product from our project is a short and concise guide, Silent learners - a guide, with lots of practical ideas for both teachers and students. The guide also describes our own journey from seeing these learners as a problem to seeing the issue as one of inclusion and accessibility and that we need to take all learners into consideration when designing courses, not just the vocal and active ones.

The issue behind this guide is making education more inclusive and so we need to offer alternative pathways for learners and ensure that different competences and learning strategies are recognized. Collaboration does not always demand noisy synchronous meetings but can also involve more silent asynchronous activities where everyone can contribute using a variety of media. Introverts are often invisible in synchronous group work, but if that discussion is continued in an online asynchronous learning space then the more reflective learners are more likely to contribute effectively. Developing better asynchronous collaboration also empowers learners with special needs by allowing them more time to make a response and thereby making a valuable contribution to the group work. Another group of learners that would benefit from a more flexible and inclusive approach are non-native speakers who generally need more time to understand the subject matter and formulate their ideas and are therefore disadvantaged in synchronous discussions.

You can read more about the project activities with links to several webinars and other resources on the project site, Silent learners.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Lecture capture and attendance

CC0 Public domain by Nikolayhg on Pixabay
Despite considerable criticism over the years, the good old lecture is still the staple diet on most of the world's campuses and shows few signs of disappearing in the near future. It's quite simply so embedded into the culture of higher education that students would probably feel cheated if they didn't get the experience of sitting in a large hall listening to a professor's words of wisdom. Even students who have been to schools that have embraced collaborative learning and the pedagogical use of digital tools and devices somehow expect university to be different and the traditional image of the lecture is what they expect.

Lectures are easy to arrange and plan and seem to be an effective way of addressing a large group of first or second year students at the same time. They are also usually the first teaching method to be made digital since lecture capture is relatively simple to do and it doesn't really change the status quo except for the question of whether students will bother to come to the lectures if they know that a recording will be available. However a new study from the University of AberdeenTurn up, tune in, don’t drop out: The relationship between lecture attendance, use of lecture recordings, and achievement at different levels of study, shows that these fears are not justified and that recorded lectures have very little effect on student attendance and they have a positive effect on many students' learning (or at least their test scores). The study shows that the recordings are particularly helpful as study aids for first year students and that they are especially appreciated by non-native English speakers who get the chance to go through the lecture at their own pace.

Importantly, despite anecdotal fears,we find little evidence to substantiate the claim that providing recordings reduces attendance or negatively impacts achievement, instead, we find positive evidence that the recordings are seen as particularly helpful for non-native speakers in first year as they adjust to a new language environment.

Lecture recordings were of less importance to students in their third and fourth years, presumably because the focus there is not so much on learning fundamental principles and facts and more on deeper learning. The study will hopefully calm the fears that many teachers have about letting students have access to their lectures either in recorded form or at least as slideshows or text summaries. These are valuable to students' learning and more importantly are an essential accessibility feature, allowing students with special needs to review material in the form they prefer.

However the real issue here is the value of lectures as synchronous activities. One-way communication like this should be prerecorded and made available to students before the scheduled class activity. The classroom session should then be as interactive as possible, making the session effectively unmissable. First year students especially need more time for deeper discussion, inquiry and collaboration and valuable contact time should not be wasted on monologue, no matter how knowledgeable the teacher may be. Occasional traditional lectures can certainly be inspiring but only when the speaker is an excellent presenter. Otherwise let's provide good prerecorded input for students, preferably in short bite-sized chunks of around 10 minutes, together with quizzes or questions for discussion and free up classroom time for activity.

Read more on this in an article in The Learning Scientists blog, Lecture Attendance, Lecture Recordings, and Student Performance: A Complex, but Noteworthy Relationship.

Nordmann, E., Calder, C., Bishop, P., Irwin, A., & Comber, D. (2017, November 10). Turn up, tune in, don’t drop out: The relationship between lecture attendance, use of lecture recordings, and achievement at different levels of study. Retrieved from

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Put the social back in social media

CC0 Public domain on pxhere
What happens when fake news is exactly what you want to believe? How critical are we when we survey the daily news feeds and tips from friends in social media? Maybe the rise of so-called fake news is the result of our own shortcomings and not simply the fault of corporations, trolls and nebulous foreign powers. Confirmation bias has always been a factor in how we view the world; we have always chosen our friends according to how much we agree with them and we have always chosen news media who reflect our own opinions. Technology magnifies these tendencies and makes it easy for those who want to manipulate public opinion and often the views of a small minority can seem to be the voice of the masses.

I really enjoyed reading an article on this theme in Wired where Miranda Katz interviews Danah BoydThe Fake News Culprit No One Wants to Identify: You. Fake news is a cultural rather than a technological problem and it is a false trail to think that the solution lies solely with the social media corporations (though there is of course a lot they could do to help). We need to realise that our own behaviour is at the root of today's polarised and conflict-ridden society.

And, for the most part, we’re looking for something new to blame, which is why so much of the attention is focused on technology companies instead of politics, news media, or our economic incentives. We need to hold ourselves individually and collectively responsible, but that’s not where people are at.

Much of the communication in social media today is based on a culture of bullying and coercion that is now, possibly more than ever, increasingly acceptable and we're all part of it in some way. The internet was seen by many as an arena to bring us together and foster global understanding but we didn't foresee it being used to do the opposite.

We're not seeing something that is brand new. We're just distraught because hatred, prejudice, and polarization are now extraordinarily visible, and that the people who have power in this moment are not the actors that some of us believe should have power. And, of course, technology mirrors and magnifies the good, bad, and ugly of everyday life. There’s a peculiar contradiction and challenge of what we’ve built [with these platforms]. So many early internet creators hoped to build a decentralized system that would allow anybody to have power. We didn't account for the fact that the class of people who might leverage this strategically may do so for nefarious, adversarial, or destructive purposes.

I would like to see Facebook, Twitter and Instagram revert to being forums for personal communication rather than soapboxes and propaganda channels; putting the social back in social media. Please show me what you had for breakfast or a photo of a beautiful garden rather than links to news that confirm your own beliefs. Stop trying to persuade others to think like you and instead share glimpses of your life, small insights and try to build relationships. Stop blaming and scapegoating and try to find solutions to the problems we face. Polarisation only leads to conflict and that solves nothing.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Innovating pedagogy - new report

CC BY Some rights reserved by Open University (Photo Chris Valentine)
In case you haven't already found it, I'd like to point you in the direction of the latest edition of the Open University's excellent report, Innovating pedagogy 2017. This is the sixth edition of the report and the aim is to provide a pedagogical balance to the annual NMC Horizon reports on trends in educational technology. Each year they identify and describe ten emerging pedagogies that are of course influenced by technology but are relevant to all forms of teaching and learning. Each trend is described with theoretical background and practical examples and, as in the NMC Horizon reports, there are numerous links to reports, articles and examples of these ideas in practice.

This year's report raises the following phenomena:
  • Spaced learning - dividing class time into short modules of input, recall and application with social activity breaks in between. 
  • Learners making science - citizen science activities gathering data and actively analysing.
  • Open textbooks - teachers, and even students, writing and continuously updating course literature openly on the net.
  • Navigating post-truth societies - strategies for dealing with false news, biased reporting and propaganda.
  • Intergroup empathy - methods for fostering inter-cultural understanding and diversity.
  • Immersive learning - using simulations, virtual and augmented reality in education to provide realistic practical experience of situations that are hard to replicate physically.
  • Student-led analytics - letting students access their own data to help them set objectives for and monitor their studies.
  • Big-data inquiry - learning to harness the power of big data and applying it to solve real problems.
  • Learning with internal values - greater freedom for learners to choose own focus areas within the wider curriculum, thus adding internal motivation.
  • Humanistic knowledge-building communities - combining the need for learner autonomy, creativity and self-direction with the the need to build the collective knowledge of the community.
What all of these have in common is developing a more rounded and holistic view of education and trying to integrate the sometimes conflicting perspectives of learning for employment, learning for personal development and learning to be an active citizen and part of a wider community. Today there is an increasing focus, especially from governments and industry, on learning for employment and many of the most popular uses of technology in education have been related to this. We use technology to monitor learner progress, test, set grades and facilitate knowledge transfer through recorded lectures and online resources.

The trends in this report offer a human balance to the the current obsession with tangible results and league tables. They stress participation, internal motivation, balance and active involvement. Instead of looking at how universities and schools can use big data and learning analytics to monitor students we should see how students can make use of this data to help them learn. We all need to learn how to harness the power of the data revolution instead of being passive victims. We need to learn to question and filter the information torrent in an informed and scientific way instead of feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Basically we all (teachers and students) need to relearn how to learn in today's new media landscape.

The report is fascinating reading but, like all such reports, is simply an indication of possible future developments. In a year's time things could look very different and who knows what new phenomenon can come out of the blue. What the last few years have taught us all is that predicting the future has never been so difficult. If you want to read more about this report have a look at these two: Martin Weller's blog post, Innovating Pedagogy 2017 and an article in 
Times Higher Education, Post-truth teaching: coming to a lecture theatre near you?

Ferguson, R., Barzilai, S., Ben-Zvi, D., Chinn, C.A., Herodotou, C., Hod, Y., Kali, Y., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Kupermintz, H., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Sagy, O., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2017). Innovating Pedagogy 2017: Open University Innovation Report 6. Milton Keynes: The Open University, UK.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

How open? How flexible? It's not so simple

We use words like open, free, flexible and personalised and assume that are positive and desirable. Who doesn't want to be described in those terms? The problem is that in practice these concepts can prove to be very complex and the effects can sometimes be counter-productive. Moving from the highly structured world of traditional education to flexible, open and learner-centred education based on digital media is a rather daunting process that requires a complete overhaul of your practice and theoretical base.

A new post by Martin Weller (possibly the most cited person on this blog), Maybe more isn't better, questions the concept of flexibility. It sounds great but the question is when does flexibility turn into chaos.

The second assumption is that “People want more flexibility”. Again, this seems obvious, and indeed may well be correct in many instances. But at the EADTU conference I was struck by a presentation from Rieny van den Munckhof, from the OU Netherlands. They found that, echoing some of the sentiment around personalisation above, that their previously highly flexible model (start any time, take exam when you want), was in fact, too flexible. It worked for highly independent learners, but they’ve switched to a more structured approach. This has improved retention and allowed for more interactive pedagogy.

Flexibility depends on perspective. Increased flexibility for the learner may cause headaches for the teacher or the administrator and has to be balanced between the different interested parties, otherwise it can backfire. Flexibility must be introduced in small measures and everyone needs to learn to deal with it. I've also experienced courses where we tried so hard to offer full flexibility that most learners simply didn't understand the course structure (or possibly the lack of it). A certain degree of flexibility, but within a given overall structure, would seem to be the answer. Total flexibility generally results in confusion.

Openness is another concept that sounds so good but becomes complex when you try to implement it too quickly. I believe that the use of open educational resources and practices can radically improve teaching and learning as well as making quality education accessible for all. However the road is bumpy and traditional practices are hard to break, especially when they offer the comfort of trusted structures and routines. An article from the Norwegian public service TV channel NRK last week (Norge kaster bort millioner på noe elever og lærere ikke vil ha - Norway wastes millions on something neither pupils nor teachers want) gives plenty food for thought for those of us who promote OER and OEP. Since the article is in Norwegian I will paraphrase the main points.

Norwegian schools have for several years collaborated in building a national OER repository, NDLA, where teachers' resources are tagged, linked to the national curriculum and used in schools all over the country. This has lead to many schools using NDLA instead of traditional course books. Now an increasing number of schools and local authorities would like to revert to course books and are critical that the open platform has to a certain extent become a monopoly that marginalises publishers and other suppliers of digital resources. Some teachers and pupils see a clearer structure in traditional course books and find them more reliable than collections of resources created by teachers.This is very understandable and a weakness with OER is that teachers need to be very skilled in finding the right resources for each lesson instead of simply moving on to the next chapter or module of a published course book. Pupils too need to learn how to find and use these resources and this process takes time. Maybe the Norwegian model needs to be revised and there must still be a role for professionally produced course literature (printed and digital). Hopefully the two models can find a happy medium.

So we maybe have to be more careful with words that sound so beautiful but have many hidden consequences. It's a question of how open/flexible/free is appropriate in any given situation and realising that there are many layers in each concept. In certain circumstances it may even be best to be closed, restricted or rigid.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The lure of free and escaping the productification of scholarship

Words like free and open can mean almost anything today and we need to be much more critical whenever we hear them. Global corporations offer enticing and exciting collaborative tools for free but slowly tighten the belt around the part that is free of charge until you are finally forced to pay for the premium version or you find that your free profile, content and interactions are being monetised in some other way. We are all more or less locked into Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft generally because the tools and services they offer are professional, attractive and in many cases even addictive. The alternative is to use only open source solutions or do it yourself and the results may not be as easy to use or as attractive than the commercial alternatives but you have the security of not being monitored or monetised.

But starting open alternatives to the giants is easier said than done. Mastodon has been around for a while now as an open non-commercial alternative to Twitter, with the attractive claim that, in Mastodon, you are a person not a product. I've been tempted to join but the problem is starting to build up a network all over again and I have thankfully so far avoided any problems in Twitter. It is an attractive alternative but a quiet backwater compared to the flood surge of Twitter. Another attractive alternative is the ad-free search engine Duckduckgo that doesn't track you or remember what you've searched for previously. I use it now and then but I admit I still rely on Google even if I'm aware of the implications. It's hard to escape.

In the field of research however there is a growing discontent with the commercial platforms of ResearchGate and as they become increasingly commercial. This is highlighted n an article in Times Higher Education, Scholars launch non-profit rival to ResearchGate and Academia.eduResearchGate and are used by many academics to share research and network but fears are that they are aligning with major publishers and mining researchers' data in what can be termed as the productification of scholarship.

An alternative is now being launched in the form of  ScholarlyHub, a non-profit platform that does not sell data or track its users. It's about academics running a service for academics but of course this cannot be done completely for free. The commercial platforms' "free" services come, as we know, with a price; generally your data. So ScholarlyHub has to charge its users from the very start and the proposal is to take $25 a year to cover the costs of running the service. This is always a hard sell in the world of "free" but the hope is that many enlightened users will see the benefits of not being tracked. Once there are enough users they have more ambitious plans according to project leader Guy Geltner:

Another plank of the plan is to make ScholarlyHub a publishing platform. “Without that we won’t be sustainable,” he said. The site would not charge article processing charges, but instead would allow academic communities to move their publishing away from for-profit journals to the platform. They could make the switch without changing their brand or journal “one iota”, Professor Geltner continued. "The network will become a resource that could (and I believe should) provide mentoring as well as quality control. And that may well take the form of a traditional pre-publication peer review," he explained.

The greatest challenge for all these alternative services is reaching a critical mass where it will be attractive for users to switch. Plus persuading people that you actually have to pay to be free.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The fear factor

The world is changing at a breathtaking pace and it's so easy to feel overwhelmed. Driving this change are several global megatrends: globalisation, digitalisation, environmental change, demographic change (aging population) and urbanisation. We are all familiar with these developments but an excellent blog post by Cecilia Bjursell adds an extra dimension. If you can read Swedish I can thoroughly recommend the post (Den 6:e megatrenden - well worth a read even via Google Translate). She raises an overriding trend that could outweigh all the others put together, namely fear. Fear of all the other megatrends is leading to a backlash that is threatening to derail all the trend analyses of the last few years. We have so far assumed that society is in general developing in a linear and predictable manner towards greater freedom and equality but fear of change is now twisting that linear development into something extremely volatile. Of course, fear is a natural reaction to change and healthy skepticism is essential, but all too often this fear of change leads to destructive reactions. The danger is that fear will become the overriding megatrend.

The fear factor is very evident in education. Digitalisation offers exciting new opportunities for providing flexible and accessible education for all, enabling global collaboration and making scientific research available to all. However it also demands that institutions, teachers and learners change the way they work and take on new roles. These changes are radical ad demand retraining and rethinking. In the face of this many people feel insecure, inadequate and threatened. Many base their fear on misconceptions about the changes they face. Many feel helpless and overwhelmed and instead of looking for support or ways to cope with the change simply dig a trench and defend their position. Institutions may see digitalisation as a Pandora's box and prefer to keep the lid tightly locked rather than face the horde of demons that need to be addressed if the lid is opened even slightly.

The most important issue here is to recognise fear as a major trend. Technology brings so many opportunities to create a more open, tolerant and educated world. That world may be possible to achieve but first we need to work on reducing the fear factor. Exaggerated tech-optimism tends to provoke a similarly exaggerated negative response. The backlash is all too evident. How can we respond to people's fear of change, how can we reduce the threat of change and can we change the rhetoric from threats of major disruption to the promise of natural evolution instead?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Developing online collaborative competence

CC0 Public domain by Geralt on Pixabay
Education has until the last 20 years always been based around synchronous meetings in a physical space. Lectures, seminars and group discussions take place at scheduled times in specific places and if you can't attend, you miss out. The alternative was self-study. Digital technology has enabled the rise of asynchronous interaction, at first as simple text-based discussion forums and later developing to include audio and video interaction, social media, simulations and game-based learning. However, synchronous interaction is still seen as the ideal form for education and asynchronous interaction is still a second-best solution. A large proportion of educational technology is devoted to replicating the physical synchronous meeting as lecture capture, webinars and online group discussions using video, chat or both. However I would like to suggest that asynchronous interaction should be given much more respect and that we see it as a complement to and at times a better alternative to synchronous interaction.

Strengths of asynchronous interaction
  • You are never alone in your studies. Support is always available, either in the form of recorded tutorials and FAQ pages or by asking questions in class forums and other online communities. In many asynchronous online communities you can get answers within minutes and of course if necessary you can easily meet colleagues in a chat or a video call to discuss your problem.
  • Everyone has a voice. In synchronous arenas (both classroom and in web meetings) only the most confident students have a voice and dominate the discussion. Often it's the teacher who takes centre stage, even in seminars. In a discussion forum or using video tools like VoiceThread or Flipgrid everyone gets a chance to make their point and be seen and heard. Many students want to read more and reflect before voicing an opinion and the asynchronous mode gives them time to do so.
  • More time to think can lead to a deeper and more nuanced discussion. Often in class the opinions raised are spontaneous and superficial. The online discussion gives time for ideas to mature and the level of discussion can therefore be deeper.
  • Greater flexibility. No matter when you prefer to study you can still be part of the discussion.
  • Enables global participation. Trying to find a suitable synchronous meeting time for students from different time zones can be a major headache. An asynchronous arena offers suits everyone.
Weaknesses of asynchronous interaction
  • Effective asynchronous interaction is dependent on synchronous meetings to establish a sense of community in the group. This can be achieved by meeting either in a physical space or online but without first building an atmosphere of mutual trust and a sense of belonging all asynchronous interaction will be at best superficial.
  • Large open discussion forums will also become dominated by the vociferous minority and can easily become toxic unless a clear code of conduct is communicated and enforced. Better to divide the class into study groups with facilitators/tutors to establish safe spaces for real discussion.
  • Reaching a critical mass. Groups need a certain amount of encouragement and motivation to discuss effectively and this means that some members must be very active at the start to provide lots of positive feedback to comments and encourage the quieter members to contribute. This requires a conscious effort and training.
The key to more effective use of asynchronous learning spaces is the development of online collaborative literacy. Few people today have this skill and simply don't know how to use online spaces for meaningful discussion. One way to develop is maybe to re-examine how we use synchronous meetings and in some cases replace synchronous with asynchronous. I'm not saying that we should not meet each other in the future, that is a basic human need, but that we need to learn how to interact in new ways as well. The widespread use of asynchronous communication in the business world makes learning this skill a central part of higher education. We need to learn how to fully exploit the advantages of asynchronous learning spaces.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Redefining "failure"

Success is the exception, not the rule. This idea struck me when reading an article on Wikimedia's blog, The crowdsourcing fallacy, which examines the pitfalls of building a service on the so-called "wisdom of the crowd". The clearest success story in this field is, of course, Wikipedia. If it had been pitched as a commercial project it would never have got off the ground, but the fact that it is the result of an unprecedented level of voluntary public collaboration has built up by far the largest reference work in human history. On paper, the venture was a non-starter, as the article states, "it only works in practice; in theory it could never work”. Its success could never have been planned, as is the case with most success stories. The success narrative of crowdsourcing is very attractive and has lead to many brave ventures, but the post provides a vital reality check: Your crowdsourcing effort will fail, most of the time, because most things fail. And because important things are hard.

We all love success stories. They can inspire us to study, work hard and persevere. At conferences we are fed a diet of best practice, projects that exceed expectations or innovative companies that have hit the headlines. We idolise business leaders who made it big and circulate their words of wisdom in the hope that some of the stardust will touch us. Our increasingly competitive culture is reinforced by countless reality TV shows where the winner takes it all and failure is not an option. To be branded a loser is the worst humiliation you can receive. The problem is that for every winner there must be millions of "losers" and success is the exception rather than the rule.

Of course we can admire and congratulate the successes but we need to look more realistically at failure. The word itself is loaded with prejudice. If success is so rare, then partial success or a lack of success are the norm. Success often comes unexpectedly and cannot always be rationalised. Often it's simply about having the right idea at the right time and getting the right breaks. Equally good or better ideas with equally sound business plans and strategies can sink without trace. Many failures, however, can then form the embryo of future success, so we need to question the use of the word failure; failure on what time scale?

What I wonder about here is that we need to move away from this simplistic categorisation of success/failure or win/lose. Most things we try to do have limited effects and don't usually meet our high expectations. Instead of seeing this as failure we need to see what we can learn from each venture and move on to try a different approach or a new angle. Success stories can give us a vision to aim towards but not getting there should be seen as perfectly normal and acceptable. Too many people today are hooked on the lure of making it big that they cannot be satisfied with anything less. All our efforts are part of a learning process and although each step may not seem to make any kind of impact they add experience and ideas to an iterative process. Even a total failure offers lessons to be learned if we can accept them on that level and not fall into the success/failure trap.

Too much of our education system (and of course society in general) is based on competition and the inhuman belief in the survival of the fittest. We should instead be developing collaboration and problem-solving and this requires that we stop branding activities and people as successes or failures. If learning is the focus of education then failure becomes a lesson learned and success an occasional happy outcome. A new vocabulary and mindset is needed.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Searching for the next big thing

Just over the next hill we'll find Eldorado. Just one more reorganisation and we'll reach Nirvana. Waiting for the killer application. The problem with this is that once you get over that hill you find a new hill on the other side but we still cling to the idea that one day we'll get to the perfect solution to our problems. In education the quest is to find the ultimate teaching method and the corporate sector leads the race with a great deal of brave predictions and powerful marketing campaigns.

An article by John Warner in Inside Higher Ed, MOOCs Are "Dead." What's Next? Uh-oh, takes up this theme after Udacity's announcement that they are dropping MOOCs and instead focusing on online corporate training. Udacity and their founder Sebastian Thrun have been responsible for many of the most hyped statements about MOOCs over the past few years and have recently been promoting MOOC packages, nanodegrees, as new paths to employment. This move was soon echoed by other MOOC consortia in the form of micromasters and specializations. The article points out that Udacity's journey from MOOC evangelists to drop-outs has taken a mere five years (feels like at least double that time). Major changes in education simply don't happen as quickly as return on investment requirements demand and reveals that the whole idea was much more about launching a profitable product than finding a viable new form of education. It is all part of the eternal quest for a teaching machine (see Audrey Watters' excellent summary of this phenomenon) based on the belief that teaching and learning are predictable processes that can be effectivised and productified.

Maybe Udacity isn’t strictly a teaching “machine” except the mentality of its designers suggest they view their platform this way. They believed that the platform itself could deliver “education,” rather than recognizing that the education is not a product but a process, one that happens (or not) inside of those being educated. Udacity seems to view learning like a virus. As long as you’re in close enough proximity to an educational product, you will learn.

At the same time there is plenty evidence that MOOCs are far from dead but maybe they have turned a corner and are heading back to the higher education sphere from whence they came. A new European report by EADTU, MOOC strategies of European institutions, shows the diversity of MOOCs in Europe and in particular the fact that European institutions are increasingly developing open courses outside the framework of the main commercial consortia.

The survey shows that the majority of HEIs (66%) are not connected to one of the big MOOC platform providers (e.g., edX, Coursera, FutureLearn, Miriada X, etc.), but offer their MOOCs in their institutional platforms or in available regional/national platforms. That the uptake of MOOCs in Europe is maturing at a much higher level compared to the US, is also an achievement of the regional, partially language-bound platforms.

Maybe as the corporate sector becomes impatient of the low return on investment from MOOCs, the universities will begin to develop open education on their own terms in regional and national constellations. The MOOC is not a miracle cure for anything but is one of many forms of online education under development. The form came from within higher education, was briefly exploited by big business and seems now to be returning to the universities where there is (hopefully) more of a focus on learning than making a profit.

The corporate spotlight is now moving over to new potential "wonder cures" such as personalised learning and learning analytics. I don't mean that these innovations are not worthwhile; they all contribute to development, sometimes in unexpected ways. However, there are too many intangible factors involved in learning that cannot be encapsulated in any one technical solution. You learn because someone inspires you, because you have the internal motivation, because you have the right support from teachers and peers, because you have access to education, because ... Courses, tools, platforms, resources, games, simulations can all contribute but the intangibles of learning are so important that none of these factors can guarantee success. There is no magic solution to learning. It's very personal.