Friday, October 30, 2015

Fine tuning

I've written many times about the issue of silent learners, also known as peripheral or even drive-by learners. In all forms of education there are learners who stay in the background and remain almost invisible throughout the course. This can be due to a lack of confidence or even lack of interest but is often because the learner simply prefers to listen, observe and then reflect alone. Some people simply don't want to take part in group work or perform in front of peers. Should we try to encourage them to participate more or should we give them space to learn on their own? In the classroom this can be more easily tackled by having a chat but in an online setting, especially in a MOOC, these learners simply disappear.

I've just started a project with some colleagues from the Nordic region to investigate whether silent learners are simply "lurking" or whether they are really learning and whether we should design courses to offer space for a more silent and solo learning path (see project description). Are silent learners more or less likely to complete a course? I believe that many learners adapt their learning strategies according to the situation and that the same person can be a highly active collaborative learner in one course and then a silent learner on the next. It depends often on a conscious decision on how much you want or need to engage.

This idea was reinforced by a blog post by Simon Broek on the European adult learning portal EPALE, Thoughts on the concept of learning. Your level of engagement depends on why you take the course. If you see the course as the key to a new career you will engage wholeheartedly whereas if it is simply "good to know something about" then you will not be prepared to invest so much energy. Learning can have different intensities and purposes and the two are interrelated.

I would like to start thinking about the concept of learning by looking at different purposes and intensities of learning.
  • Learning is a broad concept having different intensities, such as adding bits of new knowledge to your body of knowledge and overthrowing everything you once understood as being true.
  • In addition, learning can have different purposes; for instance being able to answer a question, to carry out a task, or using your knowledge and understanding to develop new knowledge and start innovations.
Learning depends a large number of variable factors and all can be fine-tuned according to the situation.We all move up and down these scales even during the same course with certain periods when we are deeply involved and collaborative followed by quieter more passive periods. One week's task can inspire me to work really hard but the following week's task or material is less inspiring. One week I've got other pressures that dominate and my attention to the course suffers as a result. Maybe I joined the course without any clear reason and once it got going I felt I should tag along but with the minimum effort; maybe I'll learn something from it.

How can we help to raise learners' commitment levels without too much simple carrot and stick? An article in Edutopia, Strategies to Build Intrinsic Motivation, suggests several methods to encourage learners to set their own goals and level of commitment. Asking learners to rate how likely they are to complete the course, getting them to write public goals about their commitment to the course or the week's topic, drawing up a learning contract and getting the group to write class rules can all be ways of raising intrinsic motivation rather than relying on the rewards and rules that the teacher traditionally imposes.

In the end however I think we have to accept that learning depends on so many variables and we all adjust these constantly just like a sound studio technician. We will seldom get the mix perfect but we can at least try to create the right prerequisites.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The invisible campus - part-time online students

parallel shadows by Hamed Parham, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Hamed Parham

If you look at most university websites you get the clear impression that their target group is between the ages of 18 and 23. That of course is the traditional target group but is far from reality at many institutions as the demand for higher education among the population over 23 grows rapidly. Many universities have been working with extension programmes and professional development for many years but still there are seldom photos of older students studying at home or in the workplace. Somehow the traditional university profile is the preferred one and the one most institutions identify most closely with. The younger students are of course the ones who fill the campus and use the often expensive and impressive buildings and classrooms. Furthermore they commit themselves to at least three years of full-time on campus studies which also forms the basis of the university's funding. Basically campus degree programmes and research are what the institutions are designed for. Everything else is an optional extra (though I'm fully aware there are glowing exceptions, but all too few).

Despite an increasing worldwide demand for more part-time online courses those are the ones being cut as governments and institutions economize and the result in many countries is that institutions are focusing on the supposed core business of campus degrees. An article in The Conversation called Part-time students feel squeezed out by universities obsessed with teenagers, spotlights the situation in England where the number of part-time students almost halved between 2010 and 2014. One reason for this is the sharp increase in fees that have been particularly steep for the part-time segment but the trend is also evident in many other countries such as here in Sweden. A recent report (in Swedish) by the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees showed a significant downturn in part-time courses for professional development and called for a change in government policy. It feels like this potentially major sector for higher education is simply not being prioritised.

The problem is that there is often no clear strategy for this form of higher education and it is provided to the extent each institution feels is justified. It is an optional extra that doesn't make any impact on rankings or funding and therefore is always vulnerable when funding is low. This category of students is radically different to traditional students: studying part-time but often combining studies with full-time work, family and other commitments with no option of moving to a university campus. They generally don't identify themselves as students at all and have seldom any connection to student organisations. This in turn means that their views are not voiced when elected student representatives meet with faculty and administration. This means that part-time students are largely invisible and according the the article in The Conversation they feel increasingly marginalised.

This is an extremely important sector for higher education that deserves more attention. These students need short, flexible courses, mostly online, to enhance their career opportunities or enable them to apply for new jobs or change career. This market is more interested in sub-degree credentials rather than full-blown 3-4 year degrees and there is a growing interest in varieties of competence-based degrees, nano-degrees, badges and other forms of recognition.

Part-time higher education has a crucial role to play in social mobility. Opportunities to study part-time are at the forefront of widening access to the most disadvantaged adults, those vulnerable non-traditional students attempting a tentative first step into higher education. Part-time study has a positive affect on the economy, with mature students (the vast majority of whom are in full-time employment) seeking better careers in a global economy.

This niche has enormous potential but sadly there are few incentives for universities to focus on it. National strategies and funding are needed as well as ways of recognising and rewarding institutions that succeed. We need more institutions who see part-time, online study as their core business rather than a little sideline.

If the part-time sector is not to be inadvertently left to wither away, politicians need to create incentives for universities and colleges to prioritise part-time higher education as an attractive choice to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged students.

The alternative is that if higher education cannot meet the demand then someone else will.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Conferences as personal development

Mingle at FITC by Dan Zen, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Dan Zen

I go to quite a lot of conferences, project meetings and other academic gatherings and feel privileged to be able to do so. I meet so many talented people and get lots of ideas for my own work. Very often the seeds of new projects and cooperation are sown at these gatherings. I often put a lot of time and effort into writing reports and blog posts about the events I attend and hope others will be suitably inspired (my last post on this blog is a perfect example). However I have also realised that colleagues at home are seldom as interested in my discoveries as I used to expect  - they have other things on their minds quite simply.

An article by Karen Dillon in the Harvard Business Review, It’s OK If Going to a Conference Doesn’t Feel Like Real Work, had me nodding in recognition all the way through. She used to feel obliged to make copious notes at conferences and write lengthy reports full of useful links for her colleagues in order to prove that she had been working hard while away from the office. There's a certain feeling of guilt involved in not being at your desk or in the classroom that requires you to over-compensate. However, noting that her colleagues were not exactly captivated by all her reports and tips, she realised that she had to change her perspective.

Once I gave up being the “super attender,” I started to engage with fellow attendees completely differently. I remember them, personally, and their areas of enthusiasm. For years now, I’ve been able to connect people—helping colleagues or peers find just the right person to talk to because I remembered meeting someone at a conference, absorbed their perspective in the moment, and kept it in mind (rather than recording their credentials in a report).

Basically the benefits of participating in events are mostly personal, widening your network, making connections, gaining understanding and getting new ideas. As a manager Dillon has adopted a policy of letting her staff go to conferences and enjoy the experience rather than feel they have to pay for it through reporting back. The pay-off for the organisation may come later when you are able to put a colleague in touch with someone you met at a conference or are able to use your network to solve a local problem. The benefit to your institution is that you get a chance to grow. You shouldn't need to prove that it was worth the time.

This seems to be part of a bigger issue. We are still rather constrained by feelings that we only really work when we're in our workplace and that any time away from there is an easy option. It seems we are in a rather long period of transition between traditional models of working/teaching/learning and new models. From office hours and desk time to flexible working, from teaching content to facilitating learning, from testing memory to solving problems. Many organisations and people are caught between these models and both can confusingly apply in the same organisation, often in the tension between the organisation's vision and reality. In theory we support flexibility but there's still the deep-seated belief in traditional values. Teachers can try innovation but risk getting bad evaluations from students who expect the teacher to "teach" i.e. lecture. So when we go to a conference or anything that's away from the office we still feel we need to compensate for not "being at work". Old habits die hard and this transition period is likely to continue for some time.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Can openness empower smaller languages?

How can open learning and open educational practices empower smaller, regional and minority languages? That was the question behind the seminar arranged 7-8 October in Leeuwarden, Friesland, by the EU-financed project LangOER that I am involved in. The title of the seminar was Open Learning in Minority Languages: Chances and Perspectives (see programme) and you can see all the slideshows, discussion notes, recorded webinar and interviews with speakers and participants on our conference Padlet page.

Padlet page with conference highlights
One refreshing point for me was the fact that the conference was not simply a meeting of open learning advocates but a meeting with another field, that of regional and minority languages, where issues of open learning were not familiar. The scope of the project is broad and we include many national languages that have millions of speakers but whose access to open educational resources pale in comparison to those available in English, Spanish, French etc.

We got insights into impressive national repositories for open educational resources such as the Greek Photodentro, Dutch Wikiwijs and Norwegian NDLA and Welsh OER Wales Cymru. These have had considerable impact in their respective countries with NDLA reporting around 60,000 visits per day and 60% of teachers in Norway using the repository regularly. They offer a wide selection of Creative Commons licensed resources (video, audio, text, photos, animations) all of which are tagged and related to the national curriculum. Considerable support and coordination is also provided; in the Greek case there are almost 300 experts and technicians who maintain the system, add metadata and provide quality control. All three have worked a lot building trust and support among teachers. The key is creating a culture of sharing – daring to share - and this involves recognising innovative teachers and providing time and resources for development. One interesting concept was gathering teachers together for intensive workshops to produce resources together, for example a group of teachers could work over two days to write a short course book together.

The growth of such repositories where teachers share materials obviously meets with opposition from publishers who see public money subsidising the production of free resources. There are often options for publishers to include commercial content in such repositories but I'm not sure if this has really worked anywhere and how users pay for access. Another difficulty has been including higher education in a national repository. OER Wales Cymru is a strategic cooperation between all Welsh universities whereas the Dutch, Greek and Norwegian examples are mostly resources for schools. It seems difficult to create a sharing environment that offers a bridge between schools and higher education.

These solutions are certainly impressive but they have been built with government and EU financing and have thereby gained legitimacy among teachers. In the case of regional and minority languages the situation is very different as we also learned at the conference. Being in the province of Friesland the example of Frisian was prominent. The language has grown in status in recent years and now has an established academic and cultural community, including Fryske Akademy, researching, supporting teachers and promoting the language. However integration into schools is not easy since there is always a mix of pupils who use Frisian as a native language, those who only use it at home, those who only have a passive knowledge and those who have moved to the area who do not speak it at all. There is also a lack of qualified teachers who speak fluent Frisian. A Frisian OER repository, EduFrysk, is being developed and there is even a prototype MOOC to teach basic Frisian.

But what about minority languages which have previously been marginalised and whose voices are only now returning to the education system? We heard about the status of Manx on the Isle of Man which is now taught again in some schools but whose speakers have to produce learning resources from scratch since there are very few publications in the language. A small number of educators and other enthusiasts are busy producing digital resources such as the site Learn Manx so there are encouraging signs. The case of the ArbĂ«resh language in southern Italy brought home the challenges facing many minority languages. With almost no written tradition apart from religious texts, all educational material has to be written from the start and awareness of the opportunities of open educational resources and digital tools is still very low. The creation of an OER repository in these languages would seem to be a distant vision but far from an impossible one.

Some ideas for using open educational resources and practices to empower smaller, regional and minority languages:
  • Open resources in English and other major languages should always include functions that facilitate translation, dubbing and the overlay of subtitles.
  • Provision of free and open course platforms such as Commonwealth of Knowledge's MOOC for development project to enable smaller language communities to offer open online courses on a low budget.
  • Communities of translators can create projects to translate at least some of the resources available on TED, Khan Academy and open courseware repositories, for example TED Open Translation project. See also the conference presentation Open Educational Practices in small languages: the role of community engagement.
  • Networks of teachers, students and experts can work on building the language's Wikipedia footprint, focusing initially on areas most relevant to their culture and development. there are several good examples of this but the process can be a catalyst for empowerment.
  • These networks would probably need funding to get up and running but initially it would be mostly in the hands of volunteer enthusiasts. Some kind of national or European funding should be made available to enable networks to get started.
  • Developing communities of practice between different language communities for mutual support and inspiration. Far too many work in isolation and would benefit from benchmarking with other communities in similar positions, even if the languages have little in common linguistically. Smaller languages can thereby support each others' development.
Some seeds were sown during this meeting and the project intends to hold a larger conference in Brussels next autumn aimed both at policymakers and practitioners.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Can closed support open?

Can closed or restricted learning environments actually complement and enhance open learning? I've been thinking about this for a while and see a clear connection. I believe firmly in openness in education but there are problems with everything being wide open. In an open course, especially a massive one, there is a lot of noise (comments and discussions everywhere and hard to find any structure) and many learners who are unused to online learning simply give up in the face of the overwhelming volume. In all this noise what on earth can I contribute? If I ask a simple question will they ignore me or laugh at me? In order to start learning we all need to feel comfortable and secure in a place where we can ask "stupid" questions, test ideas and find support. In the noisy environment of an open course full of strangers, some of whom seem to be almost over-qualified for the course and are already discussing issues I don't even understand, it's hard to find a quiet area for smaller discussions. If the course is in English maybe I would like to discuss the content in my own language and be able to clear up misunderstandings.

I see a future for creating more closed groups as part of an open course to provide safe havens for discussion, language support and academic support. I suspect that many drop out of open courses because they feel inadequate, overwhelmed and confused. The opportunity to step aside into a more closed environment to get support and build confidence can enable learners to re-enter the open course with more confidence. This group could meet face-to-face once a week at a local library or cafe, hold regular online meetings and share a closed group on Facebook or Google+. They may not know each other at first and it takes a week or so before a comfort level is reached but once established the mutual support can be crucial for the learners' participation in the open course.

Of course it is not possible for MOOC-providers to offer such safe havens, their job is to offer the course and the learning environment. The closed spin-off groups must be arranged by a wide number of organisations who see a need to support open lifelong learning. Some study groups can be spontaneously formed by learners themselves but I also see a role for libraries, vocational colleges, community centres, learning centres and suchlike to organise local or regional groups of open learners who can meet regularly, face-to-face or online, to discuss course content and assignments, preferably in the learners' own language. This may already be happening and I would be interested in getting any links to examples.

An open course (I use the term to include those that are not covered by the term MOOC) can thus be developed into a whole ecosystem of open and restricted communities that are mutually supportive and that may continue to thrive long after the official course has ended. The original idea of a collaborative MOOC was to create a learning community to investigate a topic and hopefully continue to develop outside the scope of the course. The question is how open courses can facilitate the establishment of these safe, restricted environments and see them not as a threat to openness but as a natural complement. Communities within the community.