Saturday, August 20, 2016

Music while you work

Homework in the Digital Age by ransomtech, on Flickr
"Homework in the Digital Age" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by ransomtech

It's hard to avoid music these days. It's pumped out in every shop, cafe, mall, hotel and gym and often I find it hard to concentrate on what I really want to do; talking with friends or reading if I'm on my own. Many places can't turn off the music because they get sponsored by local radio stations to play that particular station all day long whether the customers like it or not. We seem to have an acute fear of silence and so they play often extremely irritating music while you're having your hotel breakfast or trying to have a pleasant evening meal. TV and radio seem to think that certain types of programmes have to have music while someone's talking, such as every nature programme about sharks always has heavy metal music in the background or reports from many sports events have "cool" music so you can hardly hear the voiceover (maybe this is an age issue). Don't get me wrong, I love music and listen to it many hours a day but the important point is that I want to listen on my terms and not have it forced on me. Even if they play music I like I get irritated because I don't want to hear it right now.

So what about music while you're working? Does it really help us concentrate as many suggest? This is discussed in a Guardian article, Does music really help you concentrate?, and it seems to be a highly personal issue. If the task we're trying to focus on is not particularly interesting then any other stimuli will divert our attention: people passing by, any noise, conversations and especially the siren's of social media inviting us to check out what's happening. So we have some music in the background to somehow block out other distractors.

The trouble is, while our conscious attention is focused on the task in hand, the unconscious attention system doesn’t shut down; it’s still very much online, scanning for anything important in your peripheral senses. And if what we’re doing is unpleasant or dull – so you’re already having to force your attention to stay fixed on it – the unconscious attention system is even more potent. This means that a distraction doesn’t need to be as stimulating to divert your attention on to something else.

If it's someone else's music then I can't work at all and generally will move somewhere where I can be in peace. The crucial factor with background music is that it has to be self-inflicted. Whatever music the owner/employer selects will irritate someone so maybe the solution in the future is BYOM (Bring Your Own Music); listen to whatever you want as long as you do it with a headset and don't disturb anyone else. This is bad news for commercial radio stations but the fact is that most of us simply don't want to hear them.

I generally have calm classical music in the background when I'm working, preferably baroque, but I'm not sure if it helps me concentrate at all. I just put it on to create a cosy atmosphere. I've also tried discreet background music like Brian Eno or Philip Glass that just meanders quietly without ever really grabbing my attention and therefore perfect for purpose. Anything with a catchy rhythm or songs with lyrics I understand are impossible. However I suspect that silence is still the best precondition for really concentraing on a task and that our desire for music is simply a false consolation. How can we help youngsters who have grown up with a headset permanently hanging round their neck that silence is important? Many are so convinced that they need music that they've never even contemplated the alternative.

What about you?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Giving it all away

Photo: Samuel Zeller CC0
I found a nice testimony to the power of sharing in a post by a Swiss photographer called Samuel Zeller, Giving my images for free. He shares many of his best photos on a site called Unsplash and makes them freely available for copying and reusing under a Creative Commons CC0 license (public domain, author waives all rights). This may seem insane to many people when he could try to sell these images but his post makes a very strong case for the power of sharing. By sharing his work in this way he has increased his visibility as a photographer to a staggering level - 184 images have been viewed 63 million times and downloaded 613,000 times. His free photos have been used by major companies and he hasn't received a cent for this. However the free images link to his main portfolio and this leads to clients asking for special commissions and this is where he makes his money.

Why should I need to sell images if I have clients paying me to shoot specific images ? To me working for a client face to face is rewarding, way more than making money on digital sales to people I will never interact with.

It's not a case of giving everything away for free but sharing an impressive sample of your material that will attract attention and lead to more serious business later. It's basically the same the freemium model that many online tools and services offer; letting you use a basic version of the service for free in the hope that you will want to upgrade to the commercial version later.

I have benefitted enormously by sharing my lectures, blog posts, slideshows, articles etc. since they have lead to all sorts of people contacting me and asking if I can speak at their conference, write something for their journal or website or joining a project they are planning. Many of us work for smaller projects as volunteers in our free time, not only because it's interesting and fun but also because that volutary work usually pays off in the end through reputation building or commissioned work.

Of course not everyone has the luxury of being able to share everything they do. Bills have to be paid and those who share normally have a secure employment. The skill is realising that a certain level of sharing has more benefits than drawbacks. If you don't share anything and hope that people will pay to discover your work you will not get far today. Free sharing is your shop window. As Zeller concludes:

There’s no point in being talented if nobody can see what you do.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Online learning - where now?


At this time of year my news feeds dry up as most people in the business take their summer break so maybe it's a good time for me to take stock and reflect on the status of online learning today and speculate on future developments. I've been working with online learning for around twelve years now and whilst there has indeed been significant progress in some aspects we still get bogged down in the same discussions and preconceptions as we did when I started in 2004. Here's a list of recurring themes on this blog that I'm really getting tired of discussing (in no particular order).

Polarised either /or discussions
We are still trapped in endless discussions about whether online education is better or worse than traditional classroom education or whether e-books are better than print and so on. These discussions seldom lead anywhere except further entrenchment. Tony Bates outlines a much better approach in his current series of blog posts on online learning, see for example Online learning for beginners: 2. Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching? Most comparisons fail to compare like with like (ie same types of students with similar needs) and seldom see that the two modes suit different types of learners (young full-time campus students and older lifelong learners). The eternal debate on completion rates ignores the fact that distance learners have completely different life situations compared to full-time campus students who generally complete their courses regardless of the quality, simply because their funding depends on them passing. Generally these types of comparisons ask the wrong questions, see more below.

Traditional education as default
The burden of proof is overwhelmingly on the online side whilst few people investigate whether traditional methods really work as well as we think. Are classrooms always the best place for an open discussion when we know so well that these discussions favour those who like the spotlight and those who like to reflect before answering and feel intimidated in a group setting never say anything? Lectures have been central to higher education for centuries but does that mean that we learn from them? What types of learning do we test in exam halls? I would like to see an end to the burden of proof syndrome and instead accept that we need to integrate face-to-face and online to offer more nuanced approaches to education.

Asking the wrong questions
The fact that we're still falling into the traps in the previous points means that we keep asking the wrong questions. It's not about delivery method, technical platform or old versus new it's about designing education that can reach out to and empower as many learners as possible using all the tools, methods and pedagogies available today (including the traditional ones!). Once again Tony Bates offers two key questions for us to focus on:

Indeed, it is the variables or conditions for success that we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should be asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:
What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?

In terms of making decisions then about mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:
What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended or fully online learning respectively? 


One size does not fit all and the traditional system has failed millions of learners by only offering face-to-face education often at a price and only in certain locations. How can we offer more inclusive and personalised education by using the full spectrum of tools and methods available today? Getting the mix right and focusing on course design are what we need to work on today.

"The next big thing" syndrome
Every time a new device, app or tool hits the market the hype machine revs into action and soon we're drowning in posts and articles on how Google Apps/MOOCs/iPads/Facebook Live/Pokemon go/xxxx will revolutionise education. The revolution isn't going to happen but they all contribute to an evolution. The problem is that the commercial hype only increases the skepticism of many educators and prevents them from investigating the new phenomena with an open mind. As a result new technologies and methods are restricted to an edtech echo-chamber and have limited impact to the mainstream. I would like to see less hype and fireworks and more genuine curiosity and investigation before we make any claims about revolutions or disruption.

Structural barriers and the power of tradition
Many who want to be innovative are stifled by structural barriers and tradition. The increasing focus on results and accountability stifles innovation as institutions play safe to avoid failure, The tyrany of rankings mean that you focus on the criteria that help you rise in the ranking system and ignore those that do not, ie research versus teaching, campus versus distance etc, The traditional image of the university as a leafy campus full of young full-time students and high profile research is extremely hard to break, as most university websites show. Pedagogical innovation, outreach and lifelong learning simply don't win any gold stars and until they do we seem to be stuck in a mold, even though there are, of course, exceptions.

Even students can be barriers to innovation. They have been brought up on the traditional image of the university and actually expect the lectures and student life that they have seen so much in films and TV series. A teacher who abandons the traditional methods and is innovative can risk poor evaluations from students who expect to be taught (ie lectured to). 

Where do we go from here then? I don't see any radical changes in the near future but we need to get online into the mainstream and do it by asking new questions and simply not responding to either/or discussions. There are encouraging signs of a more integrated and nuanced aproach to online learning with several major international organisations taking the lead (UNESCO, OECD, European Commission, EUA and others). There are now many excellent reports, initiatives and funding schemes from these and other organisations and there are plenty of enthusiastic educators involved in projects. The barriers tend to appear in the space between these two extremes: governments, national authorities and educational leaders. For bottom-up to connect with top-down you need to work on getting the middle layers on board.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pokemon and source criticism


It's maybe a sign of the times that in a summer of conflict, terrorist attacks and political turmoil, millions of people are running around searching for virtual cartoon characters. I admit I find it hard to relate to Pokemon Go, just as the first wave of Pokemon in the mid-nineties escaped me, but one positive result of the trend is that it will be much easier to talk about augmented reality from now on. AR is already being used in education, simulation, tourism and gaming but Pokemon will push it into the mainstream and I expect to see a boom in the field in the coming year.

However maybe we can see Pokemon Go as more than just a fun game but a useful metaphor for the times we live in. We no longer see the world as it is (maybe we never did) but our view of reality is augmented or filtered through different lenses; media channels, politicians, populists, advertising etc. Every day we are met by competing and often wildly differing narratives where demons, trolls, half-truths and fantasy appear before us. It's all too easy to mix reality with these superimposed virtual figures. We need to raise our awareness that the information we get is augmented by the channel that conveys it. Educators need to focus more than ever on source criticism and the ability to assess the credibility of information. Indeed in my view this is the most important skill in all levels of education today. We need to be able to distinguish between the real world and the Pokemon figures that appear to inhabit it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Roadmaps for online learning

Navigator by Tabsinthe, on Flickr
"Navigator" (CC BY 2.0) by Tabsinthe

There is no shortage of trend reports and guides on the future of online learning but sadly too few institutions who are using them as a base for their strategic planning. The challenges ahead for higher education are complex and require new approaches and innovative solutions in a sector that is so deeply rooted in tradition and history. This tradition coupled with the high level of respect and credibility that university qualifications still command makes it all too easy to think that a business-as-usual strategy is the safest course to plot.

The Canadian educational technology support organisation Contact North published earlier this year an excellent trend overview entitled The future of online learning. This describes the increased complexity of today's educational landscape with new actors, models and credentials jostling for attention and challenging the traditional setup. At the same time universities are under increasing financial and regulatory pressure to be more efficient, result-oriented and accountable with a wider than ever range of students with high expectations in terms of personalisation, flexibility and work relevance. The report examines what this means for higher education institutions and notes that a new ecosystem is developing to cater for a much more diversified and demanding target group. The gold standard of the university degree will be challenged and augmented by new types of credentials including micro-credentials like badges. Short and flexible programmes with strong links to workplace experience will allow many to combine work and study without the need to spend several years on campus. This will demand new methods for assessment, recognition of prior learning and the development of new forms of quality assurance. This doesn't mean that the traditional university model is going to be overthrown but it does mean that there will be more alternative paths to learning.

Source: UOC eLearn Center, Witthaus, Padilla, Guàrdia and Campillo (2016, p.6). 
An example of how to use these trends and feed them into a university's strategic development is seen in the results of the FUTURA (Future of University Teaching: Update and a Roadmap for Advancement) project. This describes the process of applying trends in online learning to teaching practice and university strategy at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC); read more in an article from the UOC's eLearn Center, IDEAS: a new framework for next generation pedagogy.

FUTURA identified pedagogical trends and innovations globally, and analysed related institutional examples. The FUTURA report proposes a framework for describing current and emerging practice in teaching in online higher education under the acronym, IDEAS.

The IDEAS model (explained in the image on the right) provides a sound basis for re-examining pedagogical development at any university and reinforces most of the conclusions of Contact North's analysis. Everything described here is already taking place but mostly in a fragmented way through projects or innovative faculty with few institutions developing a comprehensive strategy. I suspect that the prime movers are distance education universities since their focus is online but campus universities ignore this at their peril.

These alternative paths are already attracting an increasing number of school leavers who are becoming less likely to head straight to university campus. A new article in eCampus News, Could these 3 burgeoning nontraditional pathways be a boon for traditional institutions? describes how many American students are trying one or a combination of the following before considering campus:
  • a gap year or two with internships and self-directed learning
  • online studies via open courses
  • getting hard skills by practical experience
“College costs keep growing and student debt is over one trillion dollars,” explained Richard Wang, CEO at Coding Dojo in a statement. “These alternative education options can help keep student debt under control, while providing individuals with real-world experience and skills employers are looking for in job candidates.”

Trends are becoming reality though not always in a revolutionary and disruptive way. New opportunities and pathways emerge often largely unnoticed until they reach a level that cannot be ignored. I have previously likened these changes to a glacier; the landscape is being radically changed but the changes and the pace of change are not always evident to those who are standing on the glacier itself. Only when the glacier melts will we see the full extent of the change. Those institutions who realise they are on a glacier and start changing now will be able to meet the challenges ahead. The most dangerous option is business as usual, thinking that the ground under our feet is solid.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

How would you like your course?

CC0 Public Domain on Pixabay
Pretty well every MOOC provider today builds in some kind of arena for interaction and collaboration and although many participants still operate in self-study mode there are many who see the course as a networking opportunity and simply learn better in the company of peers. Interaction and collaboration have long been seen as the key to raising the completion rates in MOOCs. The problem is that we all have our own preferences when it comes to interaction; some enjoy synchronous video or audio meetings whilst other prefer asynchronous chat or discussion threads. We also have cultural differences in how willing we are to discuss with strangers and seeing learning as a collaborative process. Add to this the linguistic difficulties many non-native English speakers experince especially when entering an advanced academic discussion with highly eloquent native speakers. Just offering an arena and hoping people will discuss simply doesn't work. But maybe if we first ask the participants how they would like to learn?

A new study from Penn State University, highlighted in an article on Campus Technology, Grouping MOOC Students by Communication Mode Doesnt Help Completion, offered MOOC participants a choice of how they would like to interact with peers in their MOOC and put them into study groups according to those preferences.

A team of seven researchers undertook an examination of participants in a Penn State MOOC, "Creativity, Innovation and Change," which was delivered on Coursera and drew 200,000 people from 190 countries in 2013 and 2014. Volunteers in the course were asked to fill out a pre-course survey online to provide demographic information and designate their learning preferences: Did they prefer to be part of a group that used asynchronous text posts, synchronous text chats, or synchronous video and audio as their primary channels for communication?

The results were not particularly encouraging as far as raising completion rates was concerned but the study does offer new insights into interaction preferences. For example participants over 40 were more likely to complete the course than younger participants and female participants were more interested in study groups than males. Further study in more courses will hopefully be made.

Statistically significant relationships were found between learners’ preferred communication modes and their level of English proficiency, gender, level of education, and age. Although placing learners in groups based on their preferences and introducing them to each other did not improve course performance or completion, our findings on preferred communication modes, combined with more formal instruction of how to function as group members may prove to enhance learning and engagement in MOOCs.

Since MOOCs are free and without formal demands it is unlikely that completion rates will ever be particularly high but I'm sure that creating a sense of community is a key factor to helping more participants stay the course. One area that needs to be developed is not just asking about collaboration preferences but providing support on collaborative literacy. Many people simply don't know how to work collaboratively, especially online and some kind of pre-course guide on how to get the most out of your course followed by a choice of participation options could help a lot. Study groups could be offered around synchronous or asynchronous interaction, self-study, geographic location, native language or a mix. Can we somehow offer supportive and safe study groups as a complement to massive openness then maybe that will lead to more people benefitting from this type of education.

Reference
Exploring the communication preferences of MOOC learners and the value of preference-based groups: Is grouping enough? Qing Zhang, Kyle L. Peck , Adelina Hristova, Kathryn W. Jablokow, Vicki Hoffman, Eunsung Park, Rebecca Yvonne Bayeck.  Educational Technology Research and Development pp 1-29 (March 2016).

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Where do old MOOCs go when they die?


After a MOOC is over the course material and the learners' own material are available for future reference but the the question is for how long? How long can old courses be archived and should there be a best before date? Questions like this have arisen after Coursera's announcement that they are migrating to a new platform. The new platform will certainly offer many new features and better user experience but there is a little catch as outlined in an article on Class Central's blog, Coursera is Removing Hundreds of Courses. Here is a Guide To Get Them While You Can. The old platform will be shut down completely on 30 June and not all courses will be migrated to the new one. Class Central claims that hundreds of courses will be affected whereas Cousera's blog reassures users that losses will be minimal:

There are a few dozen courses on the old platform that will not migrate to the new platform, and thus will not be available after June 30th. These include courses that are out of date (e.g., medicine and technology courses that do not reflect recent research and development breakthroughs), courses that have been updated and relaunched under another title on the new platform, and a few courses that our university partners have chosen to discontinue for other reasons.

The Class Central guide however advises users who want to save the course material and own work from the endangered courses to do so as soon as possible since there is no indication from Coursera as to whether they will be migrated at all. There's a good step-by-step guide for downloading the courses so if you want access to any old Coursera courses, please check the guide as soon as possible.

MOOC critics will certainly voice concerns about the risk of courses and learners' material disappearing like this (though it must be stressed that it is unclear exactly whether the courses will disappear of not). Certainly the risk of all "free" services is that you are at the mercy of the service provider and there is always the risk that terms can change at short notice, price tags get added or the provider goes bust. Coursera are making a major upgrade of their service and have decided, along with the responsible universities, not to migrate courses that are no longer relevant. Maybe MOOC providers should have an archiving policy clearly stating how long material will be available and what rights the participants has in terms of accessing their material after the course is over and making it easy for them to download what they want to keep for the future. Alternatively let the responsible university take care of archiving.

Then again is this so unusual really? How long are students able to keep their LMS log-in after their degree is completed and can they easily download the course material? Universities are legally bound to archive old courses for several years but I'm not sure if any have archiving policies for MOOCs. As long as MOOCs are free and non-credit then maybe you can't expect them to be accessible forever but now that credits and other credentials are being awarded as well MOOCs being presented for recognition of prior learning it's time to develop archiving policies. A course shouldn't simply disappear.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Taking charge of your professional development


For many education professionals competence development is still mostly locked into attending internal training sessions either on campus or at a conference centre before the start of the new academic year. Sometimes these sessions are excellent and many can gain inspiration from them but often they miss the mark. The session can never be relevant for everyone; some already know what is being taught and others find it completely over their heads. Competence development is highly personal and so a classroom approach is always going to fall short. Maybe the most valuable group trining initiatives are workshops on how to take charge of your owbn professional development. Instead of waiting for a suitable on-site course to be arranged we can all benefit from learning how to find educational resources, join communities of practice, develop personal learning networks, find open courses to join amd develop skills in online collaboration. The range of opportunities is vast but sadly very few teachers are aware of them so awareness raising workshops are a good start.

Steven W Anderson writes about this in a recent post, Taking Control Of Your Professional Development. He recommends teachers to widen their horizons by reading educational blogs, attending free webinars, joining Twitter chat sessions and attending edcamps. The links he provides are all USA-oriented but similar resources and communities are available in most countries. The key skill in professional development is learning how to learn online. Professional development is available to all if you know where to find it.

The fact of the matter is educators, no matter their position, can no longer rely on their schools and districts to provide the targeted professional development every educator needs and deserves.

There are of course many more sources of inspiration and here are my additions to Steven's list.

Social networks.
Search for teacher groups on Facebook or Google+, both in your own country and internationally. There are thousands of professional groups that you can join but the trick is to find the ones that are relevant for you and are active. Check the group and see how active it is and whether the discussions are relevant for you before asking to join. Most professional groups are protected to some extent and you have to ask for membership but most let you view their activity without being a member. If the administrator sees that you are serious you will be admitted. Here it is important that you have a good profile description and photo that show you are real. Spammers normally have bizarre profile photos, no friends and no signs of interaction with others.

There are many benefits of participating in such professional groups. You widen your professional network, participate in a wider discussion and if you share your knowledge and help others new opportunities will emerge such as invitations to join a project, develop a course, write an article etc. Many people join communities as passive members but the fact is that the more you put in the more you get out. Get involved and see where it takes you. If the group gets too quiet just leave and find a more lively group. If you're wary of Facebook or Google+ then there are thousands of professional groups and networks on LinkedIn. Just search and join the ones that appeal.

Open courses
There are thousands of free open courses out there and not all are called MOOCs. There are lots of open courses for teacher development and the best place to start is to search on MOOC aggregators like Class Central, EMMA or Openuped where you can find courses from most of the major consortia. Some courses are mostly guided self-study but most offer discussion forums and other opportunities for interaction and once again getting involved means you can build your international contact network. The main thing to remember is not to take these courses lightly. Many demand at least 8 hours of study per week and if you want to learn you need to make an effort. Still too many people assume that an online course is for some strange reason a light option.

There are also many open online courses that don't mention that four-letter acronym, offering both self-study and collaborative models, such as Peer 2 Peer University, OERuniversity, Udemy and many more.

Open educational resources
There is of course a vast range of OER that can provide inspiration and professional development. The difficulty is that all this courseware is distributed over hundreds of repositories and it's hard to make fully aggregated searches. Furthermore OER tend to be single resources that don't link to related material so putting them together into a coherent self-study course structure may not be easy. If you looking for resources in English try searching for "teaching" or "pedagogy" in the Open Education Consortium search function. Another source of lectures and course material from thousands of institutions worldwide is iTunesU and you can download the material free to any device though you first need to download the iTunes app.  Furthermore many universities share their lectures and course material on open courseware sites like MIT Open courseware, Open University's Open Learn etc. There are of course similar resource banks in most countries and in many languages.

Monday, June 6, 2016

When does a MOOC become a regular online course?


What's the difference between a MOOC and a regular online course? The answer seemed obvious a couple of years ago and most institutions made it very clear that the two should not mix. MOOCs had no entry requirements or tuition fees and only gave certificates of completion, often without even the logo of the university on the certificate, to ensure that they should not be seen by employers as university qualifications.  Today, however, as more and more universities are offering MOOCs for credit by offering proctored examinations either on a campus or online, the two forms are beginning to merge. In addition the main consortia are packaging courses into specialisations or nanodegrees with graded final project assignments that lead to new forms of credentials that are not credit equivalent but may form a new layer of credentials below degree level.

University of Leeds and the Open University recently announced that they will be offering MOOCs for credit through the FutureLearn consortium according to an article in the Guardian, Moocs to earn degree credits for first time in UK at two universities. This will costs you a bit but less than taking the course on campus.

To complete programmes that attract an academic credit or offer a qualification, students may have to pay and pass an assessment module. Universities will award credit against the grade achieved which will then count towards a degree ... In the Leeds offering, for example, each course certificate will cost £59 and there are five taught courses; the sixth assessment course, which leads to 10 credits, is priced at £250 – making a total cost of £545 – which will also cover access to online library content.

Arizona State University have a scheme called Global Freshman Academy on the EdX platform giving students the chance to replace their first year of study with a selection of MOOCs and those who pass can then apply to start their campus programme from the start of year two. Here we see MOOCs doing the job of regular online courses so where's the difference? The outcomes and content are converging but the openness of application process is what differentiates the two forms. ASU are opening up entry to study by allowing anyone to start their MOOCs and then seeing who succeeds before accepting them on to year two. Similar thinking lies behind the two UK examples.

Basically regular for-credit courses are starting to absorb some of the MOOC concept. The effect could be that students will be able to test higher education by taking a selection of first year courses and deciding during the course whether they want to take the examination for credit. The selection process is thus moved to the the end of each course. Many will still choose to complete the course without credit as pure competence development whilst others will opt for credit and continue towards full-time study. The entry to university studies can either be a full commitment from the start with full-time campus studies from year one but also an alternative path that is more open and flrxible and most importantly less expensive. Four year campus studies is simply too expensive in many countries and inconvenient for many older students who do not wish to move from their home areas due to work and family. For them any way of cutting the time on campus and increasing flexibility is very welcome.

I expect to see more for-credit courses taking a MOOC approach to recruitment by opening up admission and then allowing the most motivated the option of paying to take the examination. This doesn't mean that regular online courses will simply become like MOOCs but they will adopt some of features just as MOOCs (or whatever they will be called in the future) will adopt many featurs of regular courses. The interest in MOOCs as pure lifelong learning will continue but only if the institutions providing them can find a sustainable financing model and an alignment with the mainstream would seem the safest route.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

What do the students think? It depends on what you mean by student.


What is a student? Despite the growth in lifelong learning I think the word still conjures up the traditional image of the 18-22 year-old studying on campus. They have invested heavily in the traditional model of higher education and decided to devote 3-5 years of their lives to full-time study where they expect the full package: lectures, tutorials, campus life, parties, network building and hundreds of hours writing essays and reading course literature. This is still how society views higher education but universities today also cater for a rapidly growing number of learners who are well over 25, don't go near a campus and do not even identify themselves as students. These two categories have very different perspectives on learning; one group see their studies as a full-time occupation that they have invested heavily in and the other see their studies as an extra element in their busy lives but not the most important.

So many studies want to measure student attitudes to online learning but it all depends which students you ask. This is clear from a new report by Blackboard, Redefining Value for Online Students, that asked a wide range of students about their experience and views of online courses in comparison to their campus courses. I cannot see whether all those questioned were full-time campus students but from the answers I suspect they were. The answers are summarised in the report as follows:

1. When students take a class online, they make a tacit agreement to a poorer experience which undermines their educational self worth. 
2. Students perceive online classes as a loophole they can exploit that also shortcuts the “real” college experience. 
3. Online classes don’t have the familiar reference points of in-person classes which can make the courses feel like a minefield of unexpected difficulties. 
4. Online students don’t experience social recognition or mutual accountability, so online classes end up low priority by default. 
5. Students take more pride in the skills they develop to cope with an online class than what they learn from it. 
6. Online classes neglect the aspects of college that create a lasting perception of value.

The students in the survey repeatedly compare online courses with campus and often focusing on the dangers of self-study such as social isolation and the lower levels of support and group dynamics. Certainly there are plenty of online courses that fit this description but there are also many campus courses that are deficient in similar ways. Well designed online courses can certainly offer an engaging and supportive learning environment where groups can interact both synchronously and asynchronously. Online groups can also become extremely close and many choose to continue their collaboration after the course has ended. Sadly the students in this survey do not seem to have experienced this side of online learning and base their judgements on poorly designed self-study courses. 

In my experience many campus students are rather conservative in their attitudes to online learning, probably because they are not the main beneficiaries. They see online courses as a threat to the campus experience they value so highly and are understandably worried that online learning means even less contact with faculty and more self-study. In addition the old reputation of online courses being a poor second choice alternative seems hard to erase. Most online learners however combine study with work, family and a social life that is not based around classmates. They don't identify themselves as students and generally have a fairly low sense of loyalty to the institution offering the course they study. Online studies are their only option and they judge their courses on their own merits rather than comparing them with the full-time campus model.

The conclusions of this study do show that the public image of online education is still rather poor and is still seen by many as a second rate option. Clearly quality can be raised especially in terms of how technology is used to facilitate collaboration, interaction and support. Ironically the reason many online courses are seen as one-way communication and self study (especially many MOOCs) is that many of them have simply adopted the information transfer pedagogy so often used in traditional campus teaching. Digital arenas can actually offer much richer opportunities for collaboration and discussion than physical spaces and when they do so the results are excellent. The fact that many courses fail to fully exploit these features is not the fault of the technology but the low awareness of the opportunities technology can offer.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cat and mouse - cheating in education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Teaching with robots


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

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


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

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

Thursday, May 5, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 25, 2016

Meeting the tech-skeptics


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Is free sustainable?


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

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

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

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

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

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