Thursday, February 22, 2018

Open distance learning is thriving in Pakistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Is technology making us hyper-social?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The complexity of the flipped classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Online learning - the road to credibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 19, 2018

New Twitter guide for educators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Silent learners guide

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

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

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

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

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