Monday, July 28, 2014

The trouble with acronyms

Alphabet miso. by revbean, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by revbean

Martin Weller has written a timely post wondering why we don't talk so much about PLEs (Personal Learning Environments) today compared with a couple of years ago, Why don’t we talk about PLEs anymore. PLE is all about using your own mix of digital tools (blogs, wikis, Twitter, Diigo, RSS-readers, Facebook, Flickr etc) rather than pre-packaged learning management systems like Moodle or Blackboard (also known as VLE or LMS!). Weller features a Google Trends graph showing a fall and then levelling off in search results for PLE over the last couple of years and speculates on possible reasons for this trend.

"...  you could argue that the PLE was a success, it made itself redundant as a term, which illustrates it reached penetration. For others you could argue it was maybe a case of academics inventing something that wasn’t really there. For me, I found it a useful way to think about these new tools and moving away from pre-packaged solutions, but that’s become second nature now."

There is of course still considerable discussion and research among the PLE community (see especially this year's PLE conference in Tallinn) but one reason for the fall off in PLE discussion could be that, like many other interesting edtech concepts, it has probably drowned in a sea of MOOCs. Although many students (but far from all) already use PLEs without knowing that there is a name for their practice, a large proportion of educators have simply not discovered the concept yet and are still grappling with trying to use the traditional learning management system in a meaningful way. I think that the term PLE has simply not moved out of the innermost circle of pioneers whereas the general concept is more widely used but without the acronym.

The trouble with acronyms is that they exclude, giving an unnecessarily complicated name to an often relatively simple concept. Whenever we start talking about PLE, VLE, LMS, MOOC etc we automatically alienate the people we would really like to influence. It all sounds far too technical and all those acronyms simply blur into each other. My own completely unscientific hunch is that when an acronym fades into obscurity only then can the concept become mainstream. As long as a concept is still in development and in the laboratory stage then it probably needs a snappy acronym but once it becomes common practice it's time to move away from the alphabet soup.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Texting is still king

Despite the wide range of engaging social media available today it never ceases to amaze me that the undisputed king of communication in the net is the humble text message (SMS Short Message service) of 160 characters. It originally emerged as a signalling service in the 2nd generation mobile telephone system GSM in the early 1990s, used at first only for telling you that there was a voicemail message waiting for you. Given its limitations (160 characters, text only, low priority in the network, no guarantee of immediate delivery etc) its rise to fame was largely accidental. The idea of using it to communicate developed because mobile calls were expensive whereas texting was, at least in some countries, much cheaper. The rest is history but it's an excellent case of a service that became successful by accident. No company foresaw its popularity. Later the MMS was developed allowing you to send photos but it never took off in the same way.

Even today, despite the impressive numbers produced by Facebook and Twitter, the SMS is still the choice communication method of young people who weren't even born when the service first took off. An article in The Atlantic, The Most Popular Social Network for Young People? Texting, shows the results of a recent survey of young people's media habits and all social media are in the shadow of texting. Classic voice telephony is now relegated to being an optional extra.

So why does texting still beat Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the others?
  • Firstly and most importantly it's not owned by a company and you don't have to sign up for it. No company owns the messages you send and they're not searchable. 
  • Texting is available to all regardless of device, model, network etc. No updates, incompatible versions etc.
  • Texting works everywhere with mobile coverage.
  • In today's incomprehensible telecoms market unblimited texting is usually thrown into every deal and that adds to the attraction.
A further factor is the "good enough" concept. Successful services often have lower quality than competitors but due to their simplicity they are considered good enough. Listening to music as mp3 files is not particularly uplifting in terms of audio quality but the format wins in terms of its versatility and universitality. Texting has no bells or whistles, no fireworks or wow factor - it's simply good enough.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Passport for learning

Let’s Go! - Passport by LucasTheExperience, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by LucasTheExperience

The holy grail of open learning at the moment is finding a sustainable and reliable model for the validation of non-traditional learning (open courses, MOOCs, practical work experience, self-tuition etc). These forms of learning may be openly documented but have little or no formal credibility when applying to study at a university or applying for a job. Universities and employers have generally little knowledge of open learning and are naturally suspicious of the credibility of previously unknown certifications. Recognition of prior learning is of course relatively established in most universities but it is often a time-consuming and costly process that is more the exception than the rule. How can we help institutions to recognize open learning without making the task too cumbersome?

One interesting model is being tested in the project VM-Pass which aims to implement the recognition of virtual mobility and OER-learning through a learning passport. The idea is that a learner has a digital learning passport (like an e-portfolio if you like) with certificates from all the open courses they have completed as well as MOOCs and in-company training. This is similar to the badges backpack that Mozillas Open Badges concept uses where all your digital certificates are included in the backpack/passport. The key to VM-Pass is the validation process that is based on combination of peer review and crowdsourcing. The passport contains information from the course provider on the certificate the learner has earned with transparent links to all criteria. In addition there is the learner's own profile. When the learner goes to a university and asks for them to recognize his/her certificates it is far too demanding for each institution to investigate every certificate. Instead VM-Pass propose a clearinghouse solution where participating institutions can store their validations of open learning certificates. An administrator can look in the database and see if any other institution has validated the certificate in question. If there is already an entry then a good deal of the job is done, if not then the full validation process must be carried out. However if that process is documented in the system the next institution to query that certificate will not need to check so thoroughly.

These activities together will provide recognition offices a tool which will reduce the bureaucracy involved in recognition processes, allow them to share experiences with peers and compare their recognition decisions’ with other institutions – thus promoting harmonisation of recognition. All of this together, should make it easier for students to have their VM learning recognised, and thus increase the volume of students taking advantage of this flexible learning pathway, without increasing the administrative burden on their home institutions.

The major barrier here is getting universities to actually consider recognising open learning and using such a clearinghouse. The project is at present recruiting willing test pilots in a living lab to see whether the solution is feasible. Clearly there are methods and tools for integrating informal and formal learning. As usual the technology is not the problem. Changing attitudes and traditions are much harder challenges.

Read the booklet Open learning recognition which provides a foundation to the VM-Pass model.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Time for nanodegrees?

Microscope Stage 2 by tncountryfan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by tncountryfan

Last year Sebastian Thrun, head of MOOC-consortium Udacity caused quite a stir by announcing that his company would be changing focus; leaving the higher education MOOC market and focusing on corporate training (see article). This change provoked a lot of "I told you so" rhetoric from the MOOC skeptics; evidence that the concept was not compatible with higher education. Now after a few quiet months Udacity are launching the concept of nanodegrees which offer highly practical MOOC-like training in cooperation with a number of high profile companies like AT&T. The MOOC format is still recognizable but the focus is on helping learners get necessary work-related skills to make themselves more attractive to employers. The nanodegrees will take 6-12 months to complete depending on the pace the learner chooses. As described on the Udacity blogAnnouncing nanodegrees: a new type of credential for a modern workforce:

We are designing nanodegrees as the most compact and relevant curriculum to qualify you for a job. The sole goal is to help students advance their career: whether it’s landing their next job, their next project, or their next promotion. It should take a working student about 6-12 months to complete without having to take time off. We will teach all the necessary skills together with why those skills matter along with career guidance. In other words, you won’t just learn *how* to code, but also *why.*

The first courses have just been announced and you can already sign up to receive further information as it becomes available: Front-end web developer, iOS developer, Back-end web developer and Data analyst. I'm not sure what sort of business model they have in mind but I can imagine that there will be the familiar layered approach already used in higher education MOOCs; free to participate but tuition, assessment and credentials at a fee. It's interesting that although these nanodegrees will have no academic validity they have chosen an academic name for the concept. If there are no university credits involved why use the term degree? Academics may object to the concept on the grounds that a degree involves long-term in-depth study and that if you shorten this process as radically as Udacity do it cannot be called a degree. It's like calling a 5 km race a nanomarathon. Let's see how the debate goes.

The big question is whether employers will accept new credentials like these nanodegrees or similar initiatives. It would be interesting to see if Udacity would consider using Open Badges in their forthcoming courses since that would give added impetus to the initiative. They have been working closely with some major companies who plan to offer internships to selected nanodegree students but the crunch will come when such qualifications square up to regular degree certificate on a candidate's CV.

The validity of open learning is questioned in an article in the Guardian, Will a degree made up of Moocs ever be worth the paper it's written on? and the main criticism of open learning here is that it lacks the dialogue and personal contacts between teacher and student that occur on a campus programme. Here I think there is a danger of over-estimating campus education. Many universities have extremely large undergraduate courses and quality interaction with a faculty member can be as minimal as on many MOOCs just as there are many examples of online courses with extensive teacher-student interaction. Education at scale is not feasible on campus but is clearly possible online and the fascinating side of the MOOC movement is how different actors are trying to find ways of providing interaction, assessment and feedback. A degree (or even nanodegree) made up of MOOCs can and probably will be worth the digital badge it's written on but may not be equivalent to a full-time campus degree. It's not a matter of either ... or ... but different qualifications for different needs and target groups.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Norwegian MOOC commission

Norway became the first country in the world to appoint a government commission to examine the potential of MOOCs from a national perspective. In June 2013 the Ministry of Education appointed a committee of academics and educational experts to investigate the opportunities and challenges that the rapid growth of MOOCs pose to Norwegian higher education. The commission has now (16 June) presented its first full report and since it is at present only available in Norwegian it might be of interest to the rest of the world to get an overview of the conclusions (read the Norwegian version).

The commission defines MOOCs in very loose terms; online, scalable and open. As often mentioned every letter in the acronym MOOC is negotiable and the report does not restrict itself to any particular variation on the MOOC concept. This can cause confusion since the divisions between MOOCs, other forms of open education and regular e-learning often get blurred but the commission decided to cover all forms of the concept. The focus is however mostly on the high profile xMOOC interpretations of Coursera, edX etc rather than on the more undercover collaborative MOOCs offered by networks of teachers.

The report comes quickly to the point providing its main recommendations in chapter 3 with all the hard data and background coming afterwards. The recommendations are divided into two areas.

Main recommendations at government level:
  • A major national investment of up to €16-47 million annually in the coordinated development of online education in the country. This includes the formation of at least one national MOOC platform, research-based competence and knowledge development, cooperation between higher education and industry in using MOOCs for work-related training and research into learning analytics.
  • Create a clear Norwegian MOOC profile and cooperate in the Nordic region.
  • Active promotion of open educational resources (OER).
  • MOOCs that lead to credits should be included in the national educational system.
  • Focus on raising the quality of online higher education and competence development for teachers.
  • Questions about online examination security must be resolved.
  • A national review of validation of informal learning and workplace experience.
  • An inquiry on whether MOOC students should qualify for study loans and grants.
  • The establishment of financial incentives for collaboration between universities in the development of online education.
Main recommendations at institutional level:
  • The wide experience of quality online learning that is already present in the country’s institutions should be the base for any MOOC initiatives.
  • Institutions need to invest in digital competence development for all staff.
  • Institutions actively promote the use and creation of open educational resources.
  • Improved routines and opportunities for recognition of prior learning and competences.
  • Institutions should use MOOCs to leverage national and international collaboration.
To support these conclusions the commission then makes a chapter by chapter analysis of the following topics:
  • MOOCs in society (background, relevance, international and Norwegian contexts)
  • From flexible education to MOOCs (online learning history)
  • Evolution of MOOCs
  • MOOC participants and their motivation
  • Documentation of achieved competence
  • MOOCs in Norwegian higher education
  • Quality and learning outcomes
  • MOOC delivery forms
  • Copyright issues and openness
  • Workplace learning
  • Continuing education
  • Discussion on the interpretation of “free”
  • Government study grants and funding
  • Financial consequences of the commission’s proposals
The report gives a thorough and balanced analysis of the international development of MOOCs and acknowledges that MOOCs are only part of a wider development of open education and online learning. The background is well documented and happily also includes the origins of the term in the connectivist courses (cMOOCs) developed and still run by pioneers like George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, David Wiley, Bryan Alexander and many more. They also take into consideration the fact that there is no clear standard MOOC model and that even within the major consortia like Coursera there is considerable variation in pedagogy, student interaction, assessment and structure. They have not fallen into the trap of simply looking at the mainstream hype but point to how MOOCs have opened people's eyes to the future role of online learning in all educational sectors. The positive effect of the MOOC hype has been that it has pushed a discussion of online learning on to the agendas of top management. Norway (and several other European countries) differs from leading MOOC nations like the USA in that higher education is free and not subject to high fees. Due to this the report feels that MOOCs will affect Norwegian higher education in different ways than in the USA and England. The accessibility of global MOOCs will stimulate Norwegian institutions to improve their own online courses and this quality focus will naturally also improve campus programmes. National and international collaboration will be another positive result of the opening up of education that MOOCs have been the catalyst for. However none of this will happen without strategic funding, incentives and strategies.

One aspect that is not covered here is that there are many examples of open online learning that don't (often deliberately) call themselves MOOC but share many common characteristics. The OER university partnership is mentioned but maybe deserves more attention since it attempts to provide a framework for offering credible credentials for non-formal and informal learning. A Norwegian member of the partnership would be a significant move to legitimize open learning in Norway for example. I have not found any mention of other open learning platforms like P2PU (Peer 2 Peer university) who have been facilitating MOOC-like collaborative learning for several years as well as platforms like Udemy that allow teachers and specialists to create and market their own courses. However a report cannot cover everything and the important point about this one is that it has been produced at governmental level, showing clearly that open learning has at last reached the corridors of power.

An English version of the report is promised in the near future.

Monday, June 16, 2014

E-learning - the prism effect

PRISM 1 by refeia, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by refeia

After last week's EDEN conference in Zagreb I had an interesting discussion with a colleague that got me thinking. She had not been to so many conferences in the field of e-learning and although we agreed that this conference had been rewarding she found the lack of focus rather disconcerting. The problem was that most academic conferences focus clearly on a specific discipline or more likely a specialised area of a particular discipline. If you go to a conference in pedagogy you can safely assume that the participants will be professionals in that field and will have common reference points. However in the field of e-learning we tend to gather people from many disciplines who have a common interest in e-learning but who otherwise have few common points of reference. In most e-learning conferences you will meet specialists in pedagogy, IT, management, psychology, policy, administration and others. The result is that the sessions contain a wide range of disciplines and it is hard to see where the focus lies. A session that seems to deal with pedagogical questions can be lead by specialists in other areas and this can seem very messy for those accustomed to mainstream academic conferences.

I see clear parallels with independence movements in politics. Being Scottish this is a highly topical matter but if you look at similar political movements you see the pattern. The common objective is independence and as long as that lies in the future the movement unites a wide range of political shades. However once the objective is attained the movement may then split into its constituent parts since the common glue no longer exists. As long as e-learning and related concepts are still not mainstream in education we have a common goal to strive towards but when we have achieved that I suspect we will all return to our respective disciplines. The advantage of the present e-learning movement is that it brings such diverse groups together and that can be very productive and invigorating. However it does mean that discussions can be messy with non-specialists leading discussions on fields they have not fully studied and that can lead to misunderstandings when specialists and generalists mix.

As for me I generally call myself an enthusiast and am one of those who knows a bit about most things but have no particular speciality. Therefore I enjoy the multi-disciplinary tone of these conferences but I do understand why the specialists can find the rainbow e-learning movement rather unfocused. Maybe we have to be clearer about declaring our specialities (or not) to avoid disappointing.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Arenas for learning, workshop at EDEN 2014

What characterizes a dynamic learning environment and how does this affect our choice of learning environments and tools? These were the questions behind a workshop I organised with my colleague from Linnaeus University, Linda Reneland-Forsman, at this week's EDEN conference in Zagreb, Croatia.

Summary of our discussions on Padlet
The workshop grew out of an article we wrote last year, Completion Rates – A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality? (EURODL 2013), where we suggested that we tackle the issue of completion rates by focusing on enhancing student interaction and creating truly dynamic learning arenas. We found that courses with low completion rates had several key features in common: too much focus on text-based communication, no guidelines for students, no synchronous meetings, static course environment, invisible individual processes. How do we design courses that make learning processes more visible and foster a dynamic and supportive community?

After our brief input on these themes we divided the participants into groups. The conference participants formed their face-to-face groups and we also had an online group who were following the workshop via Adobe Connect. The results of the discussions can be viewed on our common Padlet page which also includes some useful links and our presentation slides.

So how do we make a difference? How do we make courses more dynamic and collaborative and thereby significantly raise the level of student engagement? Here is a summary of conclusions:
  • Synchronous helps build community faster than asynchronous
  • Social presence is important, building up a digital identity.
  • Make the course collaborative and co-operative, also encourage engagement.
  • Reflection by all at the end of each unit (on own experience and on the learning process)
  • Authentic assessment that relates to work situations.
  • Get everybody on board - even the "observers" 
  • Teamwork: assignments that require interactions. For example the jigsaw method where each student has different information about a problem and only by collaborating can they solve it).
  • Create a debate within students – contextualize (how do you do it in your own world?)
  • Number of interactions and richness of types of interactions as an indicators of engagement.
  • Importance of feedback, both from teacher and from fellow students. Giving feedback needs to be trained from the start. Variety of feedback also vital (more audio and video).
  • Rethink how we handle traditional tasks.
Regardless of whether a course is on campus, blended or completely online we need to create a feeling of community and collective responsibility from the very start. Each student needs to feel acknowledged and supported with clear information and guidance to each part of the course. Assessment and feedback is a collective responsibility and assignments must be relevant to real practice. To assist in this there are many tools and methods, both digital and "analogue", and the crucial factor is being able to use the right mix for each course. Let's move away from a pointless "blame game" about completion rates in online education and focus on making all courses as engaging and challenging as possible. Then the completion rates should take care of themselves. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

How many devices do you need in a classroom?

Cuddling with multiple devices by adactio, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by adactio

How many devices do you need in a classroom? I imagine the standard answer would be one device per student since so many schools and colleges in the world have invested in one laptop/device per student schemes. However there is a problem with this approach as Edna Sackson describes through personal experience in a post entitled Too many iPads .... She had a special guest in her classroom, none other than the father of the school in the cloud concept Sugata Mitra. He gave the class a task which involved them finding out as much as they can about a concept without any teacher guidance, using tablets, mobiles or laptops to search the net for relevant information. Because they all had their own devices the task resulted in silence as each pupil started searching on their own.

Interestingly, the children initially stay in their own seats and investigate on their individual devices. No-one has told them not to move or converse. In fact Sugata spent some time before the question chatting with them about how often and why they move seats.

After some prompting they did start discussing and solving the problem together but the lesson here was that collaborative work can sometimes be inhibited in a one-to-one classroom. Indeed one of the key principles of Sugata Mitra's work is having around four pupils sharing one device since that forces them to discuss. This is good news for cash-strapped schools who wonder how to afford a one-to-one investment but when all pupils have their own devices and some have several devices, how can we encourage them to look up from their screens and discuss with each other? It depends on the task but I think it's perfectly feasible to agree in advance that for this particular exercise there will only be one device active in each group and let them see it as a challenge to complete the task this way. The key is learning to adapt technology use to suit the situation. Sometimes the focus is on discussion and collaboration and therefore devices can be shared and at other times the focus may be on gathering information and analysis of sources and then everyone will need their own devices.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Accentuating the MOOC positives

After so much MOOC criticism focusing on the low completion rates (a subject I've written on many times) it was refreshing to read a more positive angle from a teacher. Guy M Rogers (Professor of Classics and History at Wellesley College) ran a MOOC on edX on the life of Alexander the Great (see the archived course on edX) and reflects on the course's success in an article in Inside Higher EdAlexander the MOOC Lands, The course attracted 17,500 students from over 130 countries between the ages of 12 and 86. Rogers was well aware of the challenges facing every MOOC team and set three questions to be answered:

... whether a Massive Open Online Course could be as intellectually rigorous as a brick and mortar history course; whether a MOOC could serve as a portal for both teaching and historical research; and whether an online course could engage and inspire students. The data are in and the answer to all three questions is an emphatic yes.

On the surface this course demonstrates the usual low completion rate with 1162 students taking the final exam but Rogers decides to focus on the fact that those students who actually followed the course succeeded impressively. Firstly more students passed the course than had passed all other courses he had taught in the last ten years. In addition 862 of them passed with over 90% test scores and this compares very favourably with results from the campus version of the course. Even more surprising is that this was achieved in a course lasting a whopping 15 weeks, three times longer than most MOOCs.

What this example demonstrates so well is that the students who really engaged in the course learned a lot and performed as well as traditional students. The 16,000 participants who didn't finish were not failures or drop-outs, they were probably just curious about the course and tested it for a while. Once the initial dust has settled you see how many real participants your MOOC has and if you start with that figure the completion rate is generally pretty good considering it's free and the students have made no commitment whatsoever to completing it. The course described in this article was certainly rigorous and demanded a variety of skills, just like a traditional campus course. Basically the course was a success for those who committed to it. The others might come back another day or have maybe continued reading on their own. MOOCs are lifelong learning.

Inspiring engagement, passion, and a love of learning are of course harder outcomes to measure. At the end of our course however we asked the students to fill out course Evaluation Surveys and a very high percentage of the students highly recommended both the course and the instructor. Without any prompting from EdX or WellesleyX students also decided to form ongoing Alexander study groups, requested more history courses like the Alexander course, and asked if we could organize a study tour overseas to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. We also received many unsolicited letters from students telling us how much our course had inspired them.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Quality of online discussion

Social network in a course by hanspoldoja, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by hanspoldoja

Online discussions, just like those in a face-to-face setting, can take many forms. Some never get beyond pleasantries, some turn nasty and many are extremely rewarding exchanges of ideas. Many assume that the classroom is the best place for discussion but that requires good management and a small number of participants. Classroom discussion is often dominated by the most vocal and confident students and in most classes there are students who seldom if ever open their mouths. It also favours those who are able to formulate their ideas quickly and many opinions expressed so spontaneously are not necessarily well thought out. That's why classroom discussions often continue online where everyone can express themselves in their own time and ideas can mature a few days. There have been many studies in recent years indicating that online discussions can be deeper and more nuanced than the spontaneous ideas voiced in a classroom.

However the quality of the online discussion depends so much on how well the participants know and trust each other and also on the number of people involved. Many discussion forums never get off the ground because there is no group loyalty or feeling of mutual trust and respect. This aspect of online discussion is investigated in a new study by Ellen Rose (University of New Brunswick) called “Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning. Ellen studied online discussions from a number of classes at two universities and focused on the phenomenon of online disinhibition; the fact that the online environment somehow encourages people to behave in a less restrained way than in a classroom. She found two contrasting forms of disinhibition: the well-known toxic disinhibition where some participants become aggressive and offensive and the less well-publicized benign disinhibition where people reveal personal details that would never normally be revealed in class.

Benign disinhibition was manifested in stories of shy students who participated more freely online, and in stories of students who disclosed more about themselves than they would face-to-face. Toxic disinhibition was manifested in stories about angry and abusive emails and posts. Students also indicated that their awareness of the possibility of anger erupting easily through miscommunication resulted in an “excessive niceness.” Thus inhibition may be a paradoxical response to the increased possibility of disinhibited behaviour in online learning environments. This study found that disinhibited behaviour, whether in its benign or toxic form, is a factor that powerfully affects the nature of student-student and student-teacher relationships in online courses. 

The negative effects of toxic disinhibition are well-known and can quickly kill all discussion but the benign variety is more interesting. Students who use the forum to discuss personal problems, relationship issues and so on can have as great a destructive effect on the level of discussion as the offensive loudmouths. Both types make all other participants uneasy and nervous not just in this forum but in future online discussions. It can lead to excessive niceness where everyone is so careful not to provoke negative reactions that the discussion never takes off at all.

The article concludes by stating that we need to look deeper at how trust and empathy can be fostered in an online environment. One factor could be that most online discussions are text-based and that increased use of video and audio can create a better climate for collaboration. Certainly classes that meet regularly in the classroom are less likely to suffer from online disinhibition than classes that are exclusively online. However I suspect that the inclusion of video and audio threads that provide a face-to-face element to online discussion could be a step towards reducing the risks of disinhibition.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The mirage of freedom

Mirage in the Desert by Michael Gwyther-Jones, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by Michael Gwyther-Jones on Flickr

Freedom, like openness is a very subjective concept. One person's freedom is another's prison and this is especially true in the digital world. I have a colleague who refuses to create accounts with companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon etc on the grounds that he wants to keep as much control of his digital identity as possible and does not want to sell his digital soul to corporate interests. With all the debate around net surveillance this attitude is very understandable and he considers himself free. This attitude is not unusual but it does create difficulties when collaborating with people like me who enjoy the freedom of cloud services and social media and rely on them to work efficiently. My freedom is the convenience of storing resources in the cloud and being able to work from any device anywhere. I value that freedom so highly that I'm willing to overlook the fact that all my work is stored by giant corporations who sell some of it to advertisers and will use my data for future service development as they discover ways of refining the crude oil of raw data. Freedom is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

Similarly I wonder about the freedom of open educational resources and personal learning networks. How open and free are they when they are often dependent on commercial services? Traditional learning management systems are often criticised for being walled gardens and therefore offering less freedom than using social media but we fail to see the lack of freedom involved in letting for-profit companies store our data. How free are you when the company decides to start charging for the service or pulls the plug completely? Even if your resources have open Creative Commons license and are thereby open and free to use they are often stored on commercial services like Flickr, Google, Dropbox etc.

So is freedom just a mirage? Do we have to choose between the two interpretations of freedom described here or is there a way to collaborate, store, create and share online without getting tied into commercial services. Thank goodness for spaces like WikiEducator, Wikiversity and Wikimedia Commons which are non-commercial, self-regulating communities with a culture of sharing. If you are looking for freedom maybe that's the direction to head.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Opening up higher education - Opportunity or challenge for quality?

Workshop in progress
Quality assurance in higher education deals with formal education where students follow set courses within a degree programme and where administration, course design, learning outcomes, assessment and examination are well-defined and where quality criteria are clearly defined. However, the growth of open education, in particular the various interpretations of the MOOC concept, has demanded a reassessment of quality when dealing with a highly flexible and less structured learning environment. Can we define quality assurance for the moving target of open education and if so how can universities adapt?

This was a major theme of this year's EFQUEL Innovation Forum & LINQ Conference, held in Crete 7-9 May and as part of that I ran a longer workshop session with my colleague and EFQUEL president, Ulf Ehlers, called Opening up higher education - Opportunity or challenge for quality? To help us we had asked four experts to be facilitators: Stefan Delpace (Secretary General, European Association of Institutions in Higher Education), Michael Gaebel (Director Higher Education Policy, European University Association), Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic (Senior advisor, CHEA International Quality Group) and Elisabeth Gehrke (newly elected Chair, European Students Union). The workshop gathered about 25 participants consisting of policy makers, consultants and teachers and over two sessions the groups discussed the challenges facing universities and then possible strategies for higher education governance.

Results of the workshop on Padlet (click to see original)


How do developments like open education, OER and MOOCs challenge the traditional quality and accreditation schemes of European higher education institutions? What possible new accreditation and quality approaches can be proposed?
  • For conventional education there are sufficient quality frameworks, tools, accreditation experiences and regimes but they cover neither e-learning nor open learning. 
  • There is a need to involve ministries and QA agencies into a dialogue on how to integrate open learning outcomes into quality assurance. 
  • QA agencies need to develop new criteria which take into account the real learning process, competence and not only input factors. 
  • However, in many areas the recognition and QA responsibility remains mainly with HE institutions. There needs to be a mechanism for gathering experience and expertise at institutional level and a possible start could be to involve pioneers of digital learning in convening HEIs for dialogue and experience sharing. These activities need coordination and EU organisations have a clear role in this. 
  • Elements of the solution could be building on recognition of prior learning, working on assessment of informal learning and building recognition tools. 
  • A further important issue is how to align the treatment of traditional learners with MOOC/open learners?
  • Promising new initiatives are in progress such as the SEQUENT project with ENQA, EADTU and EFQUEL collaborating to investigate the harmonization of European e-learning quality tools and approaches.


In times of change, diversification and non-traditional higher education providers, how does higher education governance need to react to openness and what could be successful strategies?
  • Combination of top-down and bottom-up (critical mass of practitioners + management decisions)
  • Create a colloquium: to share good governance strategies with others, foster a culture of sharing, create an open space arena, move forward faster together.
  • Strategic approaches on the way. 75% of European HEIs have a strategy for ICT-based learning but how good are they? Change process needs momentum. Not sure that OER are sufficiently considered.
  • Plenty good e-learning courses exist but they are not open (my university, my course). CC licensing is the exception rather than the rule.
  • Take into account the varying motivations of the students (qualification, general interest, professional development)
  • Opening up at HEI management level.
  • In Europe good strategies exist on access to research but not on OER.
  • Do we need standards (ISO project committee PC288 underway for example)?
  • Responsibility for teaching/ education. Teaching is changing. How to share this between teachers, teachers and other staff? A more active role for students? (student-centred learning, peer groups). Include external learners and teachers.  
  • MOOCs - maybe good enough will do.
  • HEIs - need to develop own strategy for MOOCs and be clear why you're doing it.
  • Develop MOOCs as lifelong learning and outreach with interactivity and self organisation as central elements to the courses. MOOCs provide introduction and overview to a subject area.
We maybe didn't arrive at a concrete list of strategic proposals but the process was extremely interesting and the debate continues. Have a look at our notes and ideas on the workshop's Padlet page.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Anti-social media

Since we're all so keen to broadcast our every move and allow a variety of apps to track us there has been an explosion of interesting location-based services. However just as you can now see where your friends are you can also track people you are less interested in meeting. As ever there's an app for this - Cloak. This app allows you to list those people who you have friended in some social network but wish you hadn't. So Cloak can keep tabs on where these unwanted friends are and alert you if they are getting too close for comfort so you can take evasive action. As they proudly announce on their site:

Avoid exes, co-workers, that guy who likes to stop and chat - anyone you'd rather not run into.

Of course the service only works for tracking social media addicts who check in to every cafe, shop, bar or bus stop they visit. Cloak tracks people on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram. So download it from iTunes Appstore ... or not.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Audio - the personal touch in online courses

Microphone by M. Keefe, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by M. Keefe on Flickr

Despite the presence of many easy-to-use and often free programs for audio and video recording it's surprising how so much online learning is still centred on written communication between students and teacher. Written feedback often takes valuable teacher time to compose and even if the comments are highly valuable the opportunity to create a more personal contact between teacher and student is lost. A major success factor in online education is creating a dynamic, interactive learning arena where the factor of distance is reduced or even made irrelevant. A good mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication using a variety of media (text, audio, video, multimedia) gives everyone the chance to be read, heard and seen, including most importantly the teacher. So why are we generally still stuck in text mode?

Terry Andersson's blogpost, Another research article on audio feedback, raises the issue of audio feedback as a quick and efficient method of commenting on students' work and which also adds to the feeling of teacher presence. He provides the example of a new study by Andrew J. Cavanaugh and Liyan SongAudio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors’ and Students’ Perspectives (Journal of Online Learning and Teaching), that has compared student responses to receiving either audio or written feedback to their written papers. The findings show that students are clearly more positive to receiving audio feedback on the grounds that it felt more personal and more inspiring than the dry matter-of-fact text commentaries. Teachers were in general also more positive though a few had problems with the technology involved and were simply not used to audio recording at all.

An interesting aspect of the study was that text feedback differed to audio feedback; written comments focused mostly on details such as edits and grammar corrections whereas spoken comments discussed themes, structure and overall impression. Written feedback was dealt with by students on a correct-and-move-on basis whereas the audio feedback asked for more reflection from the student rather than simply correcting.

However, it must be asked whether a systematic "correct-and-move-on" approach to revising a paper is what is desired in students. It is possible that, if students see comments as purely editing suggestions or corrections, they will prefer written comments to audio comments. This is not to say that written commentary cannot be preferred for other reasons.

Once again this should not be seen as yet another either/or discussion: there will always be times when written feedback is more appropriate just as there are times when audio is best. Many LMS have functions for audio comments and there are many screencasting tools available to let you record comments while showing the student's text and highlighting. Given the fact that students appreciate being able to hear the teacher commenting on their work in a pleasant and professional manner there should be much wider use of this medium than today. Traditional e-learning was rightly criticized as being impersonal self-study but the tools available today add so many more dimensions and enable us to almost eliminate the element of distance.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

OER and linguistic diversity

Atypical welcome by quinn.anya, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by quinn.anya on Flickr

The spread of English as the language of the world has certainly been accelerated thanks to digital media and it could be argued that this threatens to wipe out many smaller languages, some teetering on the brink of extinction. AndrĂ¡s Kornai describes this danger in an article, Digital Language Death, showing how many languages have a very low digital presence. Even if enthusiasts have accomplished much to create for example a Wikipedia presence for many smaller languages  Kornai argues that this will not be enough to create a community strong enough to help push the language truly into the digital space:

Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken today, some 2,500 are generally considered endangered. Here we argue that this consensus figure vastly underestimates the danger of digital language death, in that less than 5% of all languages can still ascend to the digital realm. We present evidence of a massive die-off caused by the digital divide.”

At the same time technology could also empower many of these threatened languages and cultures that have been marginalised in the past. Could the development of open educational resources (OER) be a key to empowerment for smaller languages? This was the theme of a workshop, International workshop on policy for OER and less used languages, run by ICDE (International Council for Open and Distance Education) along with two projects I'm associated with, NordicOER and LangOER. This gathered an impressive cast of OER experts, stakeholders and policy makers to discuss how the development of quality OER and open educational practices can strengthen the position of such languages. For a full programme of the speakers and further details, have a look at the ICDE article on the workshop.

Workshop in progress (Photo CC-BY Tore Hoel)
UNESCO is one of the main driving forces behind the global uptake of OER, emphasizing the right for free and open access to knowledge to all people in all languages. Their representative in this workshop, Abel Caine, gave several examples of recent initiatives, especially the 2012 UNESCO OER Paris declaration calling on all member governments to make all educational materials produced with public funds freely available to all. This has resulted in many national and regional initiatives such as Indonesia (national OER policy) and West Africa. See more in the UNESCO OER Programme.

The development of OER as well as open courses (not necessarily MOOCs) has opened new opportunities to offer extremely narrow courses in places where they would previously never have existed. An open online course in, say, Welsh for beginners can attract students from all over the world, something that no traditional university course could ever do. I once read about a guy in the midwest of the USA who wanted to play the Scottish bagpipes. The chance of a local college running that sort of course was less than zero but on the net it was no problem and soon he was getting tuition via Skype from a teacher in Scotland. Many languages have rallied round the creation of their own Wikipedia and involved a large section of the community to develop the entries. There are countless sunshine stories like this showing how local languages and culture can become glocal. Alan Tait talked of OER as the long tail of education whereby resources of extremely limited interest can still be always available in a similar way to the global scale and reach of Amazon can store book titles that no single bookstore could afford to keep on the shelves.

Some takeaways from the workshop:

  • It’s not what you share, it’s how you share it. Share for reuse, include source code, provide a declaration of contents and purpose and systematic tagging and other metadata.
  • See OER more as data to be adapted than as finished learning objects.
  • Open standards, collaboration and search skills allow anyone to study anything from anywhere.
  • Infrastructure must support process, not just output.

But can open education contribute to strengthening smaller languages and cultures? Despite the overwhelming advance of English I believe there are opportunities for less used languages (however you define that vague concept) to gain much more legitimacy and impact than was possible before. It requires concerted effort but this can become a community building process galvinising all generations to contribute to preserving and developing the language and culture. Simply translating existing English resources is not enough, new resources that are relevant to the community must be developed and this is a creative rather than simply a reproductive process. Successful models from the English-speaking world can be adapted to local requirements. Teachers and students can collaborate to produce open textbooks and other educational resources that few if any traditional publishers would see as commercially viable. Open courses can be offered to a worldwide audience including speakers who have long since emigrated from their homeland. Smaller languages can help each other by sharing development costs, collaborating in cross-cultural projects to develop multilingual solutions and suchlike.

ICDE will soon publish the full results of the workshop and the LangOER project will be investigating the area of language and OER in more detail in the next three years. Stay tuned.

Have a look at my colleague, Tore Hoel's blog post on the topic:
Adopting OER for less used languages: We need hard talk on tools and infrastructure!