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.

Reference
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.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cat and mouse - cheating in education

Cat and Mouse by katie_mccolgan, on Flickr
"Cat and Mouse" (CC BY 2.0) by katie_mccolgan

Every week there are reports of cheating in school and university exams and assignments and it's easy for some to inperpret this as a purely modern phenomenon enabled primarily by digital technology. Is cheating really on the rise or has technology enabled us to detect it more easily? What makes people go to such lengths and expenses to cheat the system? A recent revelation here in Sweden showed that some people were paying well over €10,000 to cheat on their university entrance exams. If you have the cash you can get someone else to write your essay for you and they will also guarantee that it will pass any plagiarism detection system. University entrance and qualifications are hard currency and whenever there are clear rewards on the table the temptation to cheat will always be there. It's certainly prevalent in business, politics and sport so it's naive to think that education should be exempt.

Cheating and counter-cheating is becoming a frantic arms race as each side tries to out-trick the other. Online examination proctoring services are flourishing such as Proctor U and Software Secure. These solutions offer secure online examination by locking down the students' computer and using multi-factor identification, screen, webcam and microphone surveillance and keystroke analysis. In the traditional campus exam hall students can now use their laptops but in most cases they are offline, locked into the exam administration system and monitored. However for every new solution to increase exam security there are counter moves from the cheaters. A classic case of cat and mouse.

This cat and mouse game is discussed in a new post by Donald ClarkLecture, essay, cheat, repeat… plagiarism, why it's endemic and 10 ways to avoid. He sees the traditional reliance on summative assessment as the main problem. Predictable exam questions can easily be memorized and it's easy to get ready-made answers to many common titles, especially if you're willing to pay for it. He suggests several alternatives to summative assessment methods.

Essays are sometimes appropriate assignments if one wants long-form critical thought. But in many subjects shorter, more targeted assignments and testing are far better. There’s a lot of formative assessment techniques out there and essays are just one of them. Short answer questions, open-response, formative testing, adaptive testing. I’d argue that student blogs are often better than essays as one can see progress and it’s not something that’s easy to plagiarise. Truth be told, HE wants it easy, and essays are easy to set. They also have to accept that they are also easy to cheat.
One simple trick Clark suggests is googling your essay question and see if the answers are already out there. We simply have to set assignments that aren't so easy to cheat. If you do set an essay then provide formative assessment by reviewing the drafts to see how the work is progressing. Interviews, face-to-face or video, can give an excellent idea of the student's ability and are very difficult to cheat in. The investment from the teacher's part is often less than that of marking written papers. despite this very few dare to move away from the examination methods that are so clearly easy to cheat. Clark blames institutional inertia and tradition for the situation:

This has reached crisis point. Everyone knows it but there’s a conspiracy of silence. Universities are scared to admit the scale of the problem, as they trade on reputation. We’ve created this monster but institutional inertia is incapable of solving the problem, as they refuses to change.

Clearly no-one benefits from playing cat and mouse and although we'll never eliminate cheating from education there must be better ways of assessing students' ability. The essay or scientific article has for so long been the prime medium of academic communication but maybe we should widen our scope and include other forms of expression for assessment, moving the focus to a richer assessment mix of formative and summative methods as well as using peer assessment and assessment of practical work experience. By widening the focus like this we can at least make cheating extremely difficult.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Teaching with robots


The potential of big data and learning analytics to radically change our approach to learning and education is moving from the trend reports to practical applications. An article in the Wall Street Journal, Imagine Discovering That Your Teaching Assistant Really Is a Robot, describes how a class at Georgia Tech got prompt and useful feedback in discussion forums from a teaching assistant called Jill Watson and noone realised that she was a robot until the professor revealed the truth at the end of the course. Students post an awful lot of questions and ideas during a course and even if teaching assistants are hired to help with feedback it's hard to keep up. Most student posts require fairly simple responses, often about deadlines, assignment criteria or asking for confirmation that they are on the right track. The motivational effect of getting prompt replies is well documented and today's artificial intelligence can provide this round the clock.

“Our TAs are getting bogged down answering routine questions,” said Mr. Goel, noting that students in the class typically post 10,000 messages a semester.
Mr. Goel estimates that within a year, Ms. Watson will be able to answer 40% of all the students’ questions, freeing the humans to tackle more complex technical or philosophical inquiries such as, “How do you define intelligence?”


Jill had been rigorously programmed by analysing questions and answers in course forums and was programmed only to respond to questions that "she" had a 97% certainty of an appropriate answer. More advanced questions were left to humans. The only hint that Jill wasn't quite like other teaching assistants was that she was so prompt in answering and never seemed to sleep. The students were all positive about the machine responses and many were convinced that Jill was a highly competent PhD student. The robot assistant was convincing though it would be interesting if students would have been equally positive if they had known from the start that they would have a robot facilitator. Of course we prefer human assistance and we all have experience of less advanced and extremely limited chatbots on commercial websites but the alternative for the students in this case could be much less feedback and longer waits for information.

Artificial intelligence is already taking over many mundane and time-consuming tasks in education. Automated feedback on written assignments has also been tested with positive results (see my post from a couple of years ago) and much more advanced applications are in the pipeline as learning analytics matures. Machine translation and speech-text-speech applications are improving and becoming more reliable. Add these elements to the MOOC model and we get scaleable, personalised, collaborative and flexible education where teacher and machine support complement each other This doesn't mean that we'll all learn solely through digital devices and it doesn't replace face-to-face meetings and interaction (arguments I only hear from tech skeptics). It means that we can widen the reach of education and offer alternative paths, integrating education with work and enabling people to learn without uprooting themselves to a university campus (unless you really want to do that). 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

More than three and a tree - What is a university?


The photo above represents the public image of most universities; 18-22 year old students on campus. Practically every university website features photos like this and most see campus as their core business. The trouble is that when every institution uses very similar images matched with very similar slogans and mission statements it becomes very difficult to tell the difference. Is this image really a fair representation of what a university is today and what it could become? An article in Inside Higher Ed called Your Future Starts Here. Or Here. Or Here, pokes gentle fun at stereotyped marketing, referring to a book called Three and a tree published a few years ago.

A college suffers from Three and a Tree (or TAAT) when its brochures feature pictures of “three students of varying ethnicities and gender, dressed head to toe in college-branded merchandise.”

The book is a guide to university marketing and offers an escape from the stereotyped and rather shallow approaches still favoured by many today. Since a traditional campus degree is one of the most expensive investments you make in your life you will be looking for a university that offers something special. The vast majority of institutions have interchangeable visions and strategies and so there are enormous gains to be made from more targeted marketing. One particularly interesting proposal is creating a separate web site for recruitment that focuses on the questions that prospective students have. University web sites try to include every aspect of their activities on their website with the result that prospective students drown in information. So the conclusion is to create a dual site university with one student recruitment site plus the main information site for everyone else.

However the book doesn't really tackle the greatest potential market for higher education; professional development and lifelong learning for those well over 22. I haven't seen many websites that integrate images of older students (professional development, distance learners, lifelong learners etc) into their mainstream marketing. The three and a tree imagery still dominates. At many universities today an increasing number of students are very seldom, if ever, on campus though you would never guess that by browsing through the website, the videos or the brochures. This extremely important target group is at best relegated to a sub-heading somewhere in the menus.

So what actually constitutes a university today? It's so much more than just the impressive administrative building, the lawns or the lecture halls. This is discussed in a blog post by Mark Smithers entitled Because universities are more than just girls under trees. He also wants the focus to move from student recruitment to a much more complex concept.

Now don’t get me wrong, teaching students is a core function of a university but for me personally universities are about much more than that. At their heart they are communities of scholars or learners at different stages in their learning. These communities can be virtual, physical, blended. They can be in any form; what is important is not the space but the ideas.

University is not a place it's a community of communities linking people across generations and professions. There may or may not be an impressive campus but that is just the tip of the iceberg. What unites all connected with the institution is not so much the physical location but the networks and collaboration that are the real lifeblood. Once you realise that, the clich├ęd stock photos become redundant and a new image emerges that is much more inclusive and representant of reality. The real impact of a university reaches all through society and the campus becomes simply one aspect (still important) of a complex eco-system. It's time that complexity was communicated more clearly.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Meeting the tech-skeptics


Why do so many educators still feel daunted by technology and avoid using digital media as far as possible in their teaching? Of course you can teach very well using only traditional methods and and I would never say that those methods should be abandoned. However since our students are preparing for life and career in an increasingly digital world they need to develop the necessary skills and literacies and if we do not address these in our teaching our courses will not be fully relevant. Digital tools can enhance classwork, extend discussions and practice outside the classroom and facilitate collaborative learning. So why is there still so much reluctance to engage with technology, despite years of initiatives, funding and development?

An interesting project called Unfolding the arms took a new approach to understanding why many educators avoid technology. The project title refers to the posture we all use when we simply don't want to do something, folded arms, and the aim of the project was to find ways of unfolding those arms and finding a way forward. They interviewed a number of teachers who were negative towards using educational technology and tried to analyse why.

So this is our idea. Talk to six (or seven, or eight) educators, who feel any sense of dread, impostorship or resistance when thinking tech. Ask some carefully crafted, genuinely open questions, shut up and listen ... Then, whilst the data is being analysed, offer each person generous enough to give of their time some one-to-one coaching with the Digital Nurse, to help them break through something that’s holding them back. Finally, ask them how they are doing and present the findings in some technology-enhanced way.

Two major lines of resistance were described, The first is termed Untrue Limiting Assumptions often centred around the belief that you are "no good at technical things" or are too old to start. Then there is the Impostor Syndrome, the fear of being "found out" and therefore avoiding the issue completely. I think many are well aware that they have fallen so far behind that the effort of trying to catch up now seems simply impossible, especially due to all the other pressures they have and the lack of time for competence development. The key to this experiment was letting the interviewees talk and voice their concerns and then letting them talk to a digital nurse who would offer help for them to overcome some of the easiest hurdles. Getting one-to-one support and taking small practical steps at a time seems to be a way of winning round many skeptics. Often the root cause is a lack of confidence and a fear of not being good enough. Many had tried to use digital tools but had encountered problems or complete failure and this created an aversion to the whole area. If no support is available, teachers who feel alone in the face of daunting technology will understandably retreat to traditional methods instead of persevering. The article focuses on digital resilience as a prerequisite and this only comes when professional, hands-on support is provided.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Is free sustainable?


I use and recommend all sorts of excellent free online educational tools and resources but only very seldom am I willing to pay for the premium version. I think teachers in general are happy to use the free versions but become extremely wary of paying even small fees for the full version. Somehow there is the feeling that everything on the net should be free and there is little thought for how the people who create the tools and services are going to support themselves. Giving away something for free sounds wonderful but how do you pay for development, support and simply making sure that it keeps working? Unless the product is supported by government funding or a benevolent financier it won't take long before you have to work out a business plan. But why should we pay when there is always a free version somewhere out there?

This issue is raised in an article on EdSurge, What Does Free Mean? questioning why educators are so reluctant to pay for a tool or service they use regularly. If we base so much of our teaching on free services there's no guarantee they will still be there next year, or even next week.

Many edtech products are cloud-based, but that doesn’t mean the companies that build them run on air. Educators should recognize that free tools may not survive for long. Without fully understanding how free tools are sustained, they run the risk of adopting and relying on technology that may change significantly—or not exist in a year’s time.

I freely admit that I have a lot of material stored on free accounts that could easily go up in smoke any time. Over the years a few of them have suddenly decided to become pay services since the freemium model simply wasn't sustainable. The result was that I had to move my material as fast as posible to another, free, service. But if our favourite tools are going to survive they need a sustainable business model and in the end we are going to have to pay something for them, unless they come from the likes of Google or Facebook where it is often claimed that you are the product. The article argues that schools and colleges need to consider costs for digital tools in the same category as more traditional tools for the classroom like textbooks, paper, pens and so on. Educational software is a vital element in teaching today but since we mostly use the free versions it never shows up on the expenses list and therefore is undervalued and taken for granted. Things that cost are seen as more valuable.

I believe teachers should be empowered to have more say in what technology tools are purchased. They should be allowed to advocate for the tools that work in their classroom - and perhaps even be given a budget for making purchasing decisions. ... This sort of empowerment can change teachers’ mindset about paying for the tools that will, in the long run, also help support the work of entrepreneurs that are developing them.

Maybe it's time to consider paying for the services we appreciate because if no-one does so they may disappear, taking our content and ideas with them.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Learning in the blender


I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the term blended learning. It refers to courses that combine both classroom and online teaching and I sometimes feel that its popularity is because it represents a safe compromise between the two forms of delivery; exploiting some of the flexibility of online delivery with the familiar traditions of campus. For those who are skeptical of fully online courses, blended learning is a safe option. I'm not against blending online and classroom, far from it, but I don't think the blend we really need is centred around physical/digital delivery.

I enjoyed reading a new article by Sir John Daniel, Making Sense of Blended Learning: Treasuring an Older Tradition or Finding a Better Future?, arguing that the blend we should examine more closely is not simply about rooms and virtual spaces. Today there is very little difference in student performance between well-designed online courses and their traditional counterparts. In some cases the online environment can in fact foster deeper discussion and greater sense of community. The key quality element is in the course design, not in the delivery form, and Daniel proposes that the real blend we are looking for is getting the right mix between independent and interactive activities (regardless of delivery form).

Independent learning takes place outside the classroom, even on the most traditional campus course, and today that means mostly online. Students need to learn how to study independently, find resources and investigate further than the prescribed reading lists. Learning how to learn is a key literacy. However independent learning is only half of the blend and courses need to include interactive learning, both with peers and especially with qualified faculty in seminar or tutorial form. This can take place both face-to-face (F2F) and online and the choice of arena will depend on the context. If it is possible to gather the group for F2F meetings then do so, but make sure the meeting is really interactive and not simply information transfer. If F2F is not feasible then use appropriate online arenas. Here even the term F2F is appropriate because when I have online meetings at least with smaller groups I can see everyone face-to-face, sometimes with excellent video quality. F2F today does not necessarily imply sharing the same physical space.

There is of course no magic blend, especially not in terms of technology, but Daniel identifies four vital principles:
  • Focus on learning outcomes. The blend of interactive/independent and F2F/online must fully support the learning outcomes. If that can be achieved fully online then that is fine as long as the quality of the learning process is assured.
    ... in optimising the blend of online and interactive experiences the focus should be on attaining the learning objectives of the courses/programmes and not on wider purposes, such as how to sustain the campus, important though such aims are.
  • Practical and laboratory work. Of course this aspect demands work at a physical location but with so many online simulations and virtual labs available the actual time in a physical lab can be reduced to a few intensive meetings.T
  • Teamwork and division of labour. Course design and delivery is not a solo project but teamwork involving different areas of expertise. 
  • Keeping costs down and quality up. These are perhaps the most important elements in the blend.
I urge you to read the article to grasp these points more fully but the rationale behind reviewing terms like blended and hybrid learning is summarised as follows:

What this new age requires is hybrid learning where the whole system is redesigned to create a happy blend of student-teacher conversations and online learning. This essay has highlighted, in particular, two important ways to make higher education more effective for the 21st century. First, students need to engage more fully with independent work. Online technology can help them do this ... and must be used intensively to free up time for students to prepare assignments and for teachers to use their interactions with students over their assignments as a prime vehicle for teaching. Second, teachers must help students, via apprenticeship-style sessions and commentary on their assignments, to develop skills and acquire academic knowledge.

My main conclusion from this article is that the blend we should be discussing is not a simple matter of F2F versus online, but a more complex mixture of independent and interactive learning where delivery form can vary according to context and where the learning outcomes are the driver. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Open education for all - but so few know about it


When I attend conferences and meetings it seems we're working with widely accepted concepts but as soon as I leave that intimate arena I get a reality check; most people have never even heard of MOOCs, open educational resources, open access and so on. Even students seem only to have limited experience of the vast range of online learning resources and open courses available.

The problem is that the people who use all these online resources are mostly those who are already well-educated and digitally literate. The often stated target group for open education, those who have so far been excluded from higher education due to financial, social or geographical barriers don't even know that it exists and even if they do they are often unable to take advantage of it. This is the theme of an article on Quartz, The Americans who’d benefit the most from online education have no idea it exists, that reports on a new Pew Research Center report (Lifelong learning and technology) on the use of the net in education.

This presents a paradox, the study’s author John Horrigan tells Quartz. The more rich and educated you are, the more technologically savvy you are, and the more you know how to use digital learning tools. While many low-income and low-education Americans would benefit from e-learning, they don’t have the income or education level to access it.

Despite the massive hype around MOOCs over the last 5-6 years only 5% of Americans are familiar with the concept. Even something as mainstream as distance learning is familiar to only 16%. Open education attempts to offer access to higher education to those previously excluded from it but they simply don't know these opportunities exist and even if they did they lack the skills to take advantage of it. Most Americans in the survey consider themselves as lifelong learners but learning is still strictly traditional in the form of adult education classes, reading books, joining clubs and training at work. Interest in learning is high but awareness of online learning is low, in stark contrast to a lot of Silicon Valley hype.

Of course it doesn't matter how learning occurs, the most important finding in the survey is that the majority of those questioned were involved in some form of learning. The question is why online learning has still not made the breakthrough in terms of mass uptake. Learning is available at a click wherever you are and whenever you want it but first you need to know how. The people surveyed go to local classes, read books, ask friends for advice and use trial and error to learn new skills and should of course continue to do so. However the vast opportunities for learning available through digital media would give them so many new opportunities that are totally impossible using traditional media. The breakthrough for online learning will come not through marketing and hyped news reporting but through local support and incentives through schools, libraries, community centres and other local institutions, helping people learn how to learn.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Digital life after death


A few weeks ago a colleague of mine passed away after a short illness. A sad event for all who knew her but for me this was the first time that someone I knew prepared us for her passing via Facebook and Twitter. The first I knew was a Facebook post with a photo of her from the hospital bed and the stunning news that she was preparing for a journey of no return. There were a few other posts until the tragic announcement of her passing was posted on her account. These posts haunted me for days and even though we'd only met face-to-face twice at conferences our discussions on social media created a bond that would never have been possible in pre-digital days. Those who criticise Facebook as simply a channel for trivia and self-indulgence fail to acknowledge the enormous potential for sharing, strengthening friendships and simply keeping in touch with each other. I felt part of a farewell process and all the messages of support and sympathy that accompanied the posts on Facebook showed how powerful the medium can be.

This is echoed in a BBC article by Brandon AmbrosinoFacebook is a growing and unstoppable digital graveyard, where the author describes how Facebook keeps the memory of a departed aunt alive by providing a digital memorial which can be visited by family and friends. There are today tens of millions of dead Facebook users and the number increases by an estimate 8,000 per day. If no-one is able to access your account and turn it into a memorial page then your digital life will continue with Facebook reminding your contacts of your birthday and so on, something that can be distressing to many. Just as we all need to take active responsibility for our digital footprints when alive we also need to plan for our digital death. You need to pass on your passwords to your next of kin and leave instructions on what they should do with your different accounts. If managed well your Facebook page becomes a place of remembrance providing insights into your life and personality that no other medium can emulate.

As I’ve told my mother, my grandchildren may be able to learn about her by studying her Facebook profile. Assuming the social network doesn’t fold, they won’t just learn about the kinds of major life events that would make it into my mom’s authorised biography. They’ll learn, rather, the tiny, insignificant details of her day to day life: memes that made her laugh, viral photos she shared, which restaurants she and my father liked to eat at, the lame church jokes she was too fond of. 

Social media have taken a central role in our lives and consequently become an important aspect of our deaths. We can choose to ask a relative to simply delete everything or we can ask them to preserve your memory as a place of solace and grief for those who live on. As I write this post my departed colleague's Facebook account has posted an invitation to a remembrance meeting of friends and relatives. I can't attend but I still feel part of a process that would not have been possible without social media, indeed a friendship that would never have existed without the net.

In Facebook, all places are present, all times are now. My Aunt Jackie exists in this medium just as I do. In a way, there is no moving on without her. There’s no moving on without any of the millions of dead Facebook users.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

As you can clearly see on my next slide ...


I feel sorry for PowerPoint, the butt of so many jokes and unloved by so many conference delegates and students. It's so easy to blame the tool for our own shortcomings and most cases of the famous death by PowerPoint are due to users' lack of ability to exploit the functions available in the tool. Some people proudly announce that they have not prepared any slides for their talk and I often sense a murmur of approval from the audience glad to find someone who dares to go back to basics. The problem is that a talk without any visual support demands tight structure and considerable rhetorical skill and few speakers who decide to go "unplugged" realise this. I've heard many such presentations that ramble from one anecdote to another and I've completely lost the thread, if there is any, after five minutes. I retire gratefully into my laptop and attend to other matters while the presentation wanders off into the fog. Had the presenter used even a few slides they might have been able to communicate some kind of structure but without it we're lost. Unless of course the speaker is a true orator.

An article in Times Higher Education, Learning to live without PowerPoint, makes the case for researchers freeing themselves of their digital shackles and presenting their findings unplugged. The problem is that when your slides are your presentation and you simply read the text slide by slide any technical problem like a faulty projector means disaster.

When we are training our PhD students in the art of presentation, are we giving them the necessary advice – the confidence – that will allow them to avoid an addiction to PowerPoint and ensure that they may experiment with using it less or not at all? At the very least are we making sure they are adequately prepared to still deliver a meaningful presentation even when the computer stops talking to the projector?

PowerPoint can give many speakers a false sense of security if they use the slideshow as a script. Many researchers cram enormous amounts of text or data onto each slide so that the audience focuses all attention on trying to decipher your information overload instead of listening to the speaker. You may have wonderful graphs in your research article but in a presentation try to simplify the graphics and highlight the most important points. Those who want the details can read the article later; the aim of the presentation is to raise interest in your research.What you have to say should preferebly be there in your head or on a piece of paper in the form of bullet points or a mindmap. The slides simply reinforce your message and provide structure through appropriate images and keywords. In this way it is still possible to give the presentation if the technology fails even if it will lack the attention-grabbing features that a good slideshow can provide. If used wisely a slideshow is still a highly effective tool to getting your message across but sadly most people only use a fraction of the tool's potential. For tips on how to get the best out of PowerPoint have a look at Jonathan Wylie's post, PowerPoint Myths: Busted!

However there are more subtle agruments against presentation tools like PowerPoint. Andrew Smith wrote an interesting article a while back in the Guardian, How PowerPoint is killing critical thought, arguing that the pedagogy of the presentation comes from the business world. The classic presentation full of bullet points is a way of leading a customer through the sales pitch and convincing them to buy rather than inviting an open discussion. PowerPoint encourages a process of persuasion rather than dialogue.

Bullet points enforce a rigidly hierarchical authority, which has not necessarily been earned. One either accepts them in toto, or not at all. And by the time any faulty logic is identified, the screen has been replaced by a new one as the speaker breezes on, safe in the knowledge that yet another waits in the wings. With everyone focused on screens, no one – least of all the speaker – is internalising the argument in a way that tests its strength.

Slides with convincing bullet-points are hard to argue against and a potential dialogue is turned into one-way communication. Many advocate using images to accompany your talk with an absolute minimum of text. I must admit I have cut down on the text content in my slideshows and prefer now to have interesting photos plus a few keywords and talk around them.

However I think there is more to this problem than simply blaming the presentation tool. The setting, usually a lecture theatre or a classroom with people sitting in rows, is for me the real barrier to dialogue It's simply not a good place to start a discussion, not matter whether the speaker uses Powerpoint or not. Another factor is tradition; if everyone is in lecture mode then it will be one-way communication and few in the audience will dare to speak out of turn or disturb the speaker's flow. The lecture is an academic tradition that is proving extremely hard to break. I'm sure that PowerPoint can be used in more imaginative ways in new settings that are more conducive to dialogue. Don't shoot the piano player.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Collaborative overload - pleasures and dangers


The more you build your professional network, share ideas and resources and participate in projects the more work you get. Networking enhances your reputation and more people ask you for help, invite you to join new projects, collaborate in exciting new initiatives or speak at conferences. The spin-offs keep coming making you feel respected and part of a larger context. This is exactly what I have experience over the last few years and it has lead me into new areas, meeting lots of interesting and talented colleagues from all over the world. I have benefitted immensely from sharing, networking and collaborating, both professionally and personally.

However there is a downside to this and that is raised in an interesting article in Harvard Business Review with the simple title, Collaborative overload. Highly collaborative people get drawn into so many peripheral activities that they are often unable to focus on their primary work and as a result they become ineffective from their employers' point of view despite being highly effective in all they activities they are involved in. The more you collaborate and help others the more work you get.

In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation.

Good collaborators become highly sought after and find themselves involved in ever more projects, meetings and groups both inside and outside the organisation, inevitably spilling over into evenings and weekends. This can of course lead to stress and even burn-out. We all enjoy helping others and are often flattered when colleagues respect our expertise. Sharing a few links or quick words of encouragement are easy but the real time drain is when you have to provide hands-on assistance. Many people become unofficial help desks in their department, solving acute problems that really should be solved by others. For example many educational technologists get trapped into "putting out fires" rather than really adding value to their institutions use of technology. The article recommends managers to help their top collaborators be more selective and avoid the trap of being everyone's problem-solver.

Collaboration is indeed the answer to many of today’s most pressing business challenges. But more isn’t always better. Leaders must learn to recognize, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work, or their teams and top talent will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply.

However, this advice applies to collaboration in large companies where employees' time management and activities are monitored and analysed in a way that is completely alien to universities or schools. The education sector is full of volunteer work that takes place under the radar with teacher networks, unofficial projects and suchlike and once you get involved here the boundaries between work and leisure completely dissolve. I have devoted enormous amounts of my free time to stimulating projects and collaboration that have developed me professionally but which often lead to even more spin-offs. Today I belong to many groups and networks and have loyalties towards them that are completely outside the scope of my work. The difficult part is being able to see when all the collaboration becomes a permanent feature that prevents you from focusing on your most important duties. I try to keep a balance but I see the dangers of collaboration overload. How about you?