Saturday, October 22, 2016

When worlds collide

We live in an age of paradoxes. We have almost instant access to vast amounts of knowledge and information, the ability to share our thoughts and reflections, create global communities of interest and practice and communicate with people anywhere on earth. This should be the most enlightened period in human history. At the same time, in what sometimes seems to be a parallel universe, there seem to be more superstitions, myths and conspiracy theories than ever before and an increasingly popular anti-factual culture that dismisses science, research and education and prefers to believe in sweeping generalisations, lies and half-truths as long as they fit into a convenient narrative.

The digital age has revolutionised the way we live and work and logically should have made us more global, more enlightened and more culturally aware. We generally assume that human history is a development (albeit rather erratic) towards greater democracy, technical and cultural advancement as well as better living standards. Digital technology should logically support this since we can now analyse vast amounts of data that enables us to combat disease, monitor environmental changes and see dangerous trends long before they become major problems. When we comment on conflicts and violence by saying that "xxx shouldn't happen in the 21st century" we assume that our century should be better than its predecessors. Maybe these things happen because we are in the 21st century and modernity should not be seen as synonymous with enlightenment?

I find the filter bubble analogy (Eli Pariser 2011) a recurring theme when discussing all aspects of today's society. Instead of widening our perspectives, the internet is wrapping us in tribal bubbles where we only meet people and information that confirm our own views. We have always formed tribal groupings but the net reinforces this and as a result it becomes almost impossible to discus with someone from another bubble/tribe/planet. The bubble I inhabit is one of global collaboration, democratic development, tolerance and a belief in the common good. We see digital media as a positive force to bring people together, empower them by giving them a voice and where the crowd is always wise. However in a parallel bubble there is a totally alien world where the wisdom of the crowd has become the fury of the mob and the net is an arena for self-promotion, intolerance, mistrust and fear-mongering. There are of course many other bubbles between these extremes but the more we retreat into these cocoons the harder it gets to engage in any kind of communication with representatives of another world whose truths are complete contradictions of those we believe in. The US presidential campaign is a prime example of this but there are similar clashes in almost all countries and the gap seems to be widening.

Another paradox is that all this is happening in an age when more people than ever before have access to free school education and access to higher education has been radically expanded. How do we deal with this bubble society in public education? How do we counter the climate of mistrust and suspicion that threatens the notion of a positive future? More than ever we need to discuss these issues at all educational levels and promote a culture of inclusion rather than exclusion. The alternative is unthinkable.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Underestimated barriers to change

Change is often seen as a threat rather than an opportunity. It demands that I have to rethink the way I work, it will require considerable effort and there's always the risk that I somehow won't manage to adapt or may even lose my job. Those who advocate change already see a clear place for themselves in the new order and an opportunity to succeed. Others aren't so sure there's a place for them and therefore are skeptical. In education we see how difficult it is to change whether that change is about the integration of educational technology, internationalisation or learner-centred pedagogies. There are often lots of inspirational grassroots projects, training initiatives, policy and strategy documents as well as support from top management. Campus buidlings and facilities can be redesigned to foster and support the desired changes but somehow, despite all this, the changes never really take root. Are there hidden forces at work here?

Two such forces I'd like to propose are culture and administrative structures (maybe two aspects of the same thing actually). Culture is often about hidden unwritten codes of how things are done at this institution. It's about unofficial, alternative hierarchies, understandings and traditions. These are extremely hard to even identify never mind change but I think they often explain why many change initiatives never really progress beyond the enthusiasts. It can be a culture of academic freedom, a concept open for a wide range of interpretations, that gives every member of staff an opt-out clause for any change they don't really like. This can derail even initiatives that have the full support of the management. No-one opposes the change directly but simply reserve the right to opt out.

This is expressed in a short article in EdTech, On Campus, Change is Constant, and That’s Good, which identifies culture as the hardest nut to crack in any change process. Culture is often engrained in the walls of the institution and is extremely hard to identify. Many don't even realise that there is such a culture, it's simply the way we do things round here.

Every stage matters, but I believe culture may matter most. It’s also surprisingly easy to overlook. Ruben and Gigliotti define culture as “the organization’s language, history, norms, rules and traditions that may influence the dynamics of change.” In any community, these are the factors that shape individuals’ day-to-day experiences, perceptions and expectations. Tuned-in leaders craft strategies that take culture into account; out-of-touch leaders fail to do so, and as a result they risk sabotaging new initiatives.

The second factor, administrative structures, is much more obvious and can stifle innovation before it has a chance to succeed. Often an institution is limited by structures imposed from government levels; statistics, accountability, box-ticking. For example teachers are assigned a limited number of contact hours with students and these are often categorised as "lecture hours" or "tutoring hours" with the former tending to have a higher price tag than the latter. If you still call them lecture hours it is hardly any suprise that teachers will continue to lecture. If you flip the classroom the reporting structure has difficulties. More flexible course forms and new styles of teaching are generally not supported by these structures and with most countries judging universities on a narrow range of performace indicators the risk of failure is greater than the potential benefits of innovation.

Cultural change is a long-term process and it involves much more than new technology, new buildings, new strategies, new training programmes and so on. It's about changing the default attitude to innovation from skepticism to curiosity. Structural change should be easier since it involves changing the ways we administer and report education. However, any changes must come from a higher level where the culture may be very different to that at institutional level. So even if institutions can change they may be restricted by structural restrictions from above.

Catch 22?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Promoting linguistic diversity

I follow people on Facebook and Twitter who speak many different languages; some I understand well, some a little and some I don't understand at all. I also post in different languages, mostly English and Swedish, and know that when I tweet in Swedish I only reach a few of my potential audience, the others will just not read it. However once you get used to clicking on the translate button suddenly new communication channels open up for you. The translations are not perfect but a lot better than not understanding at all. Unfortunately I fear very few people take the trouble to do this. Most people in the world live in a multilingual environment where a working knowledge of several languages is not unusual. However on the net that diversity is often missing, even if there are rapidly improving tools that could enable multiligualism. In general all international discussions are in English and those who are not fluent are relegated to the sidelines and passive observers.

Linguistic diversity has of course always existed. It's only in the last 150 years that we, especially in Europe and North America, have adopted the arrogant notion of each country having only one language and as a result any diversity has been viewed as uncomfortable, sometimes even undermining the notion of the monocultural nation state. English is now the undisputed language of international communication but even accepting this I still think that those who are not fluent deserve the right to be heard and it's time to learn again to live with diversity. In the case of a rapid-fire chat on Twitter you don't have time to sit and think about how to formulate yourself correctly and if you can do that faster in your own language, why not? Automatic text translation is improving every year and with that comes the opportunity for silent participants to become active participants.

A colleague alerted me recently to the concept of translanguaging that is being increasingly used in multilingual classrooms around the world. Here bilingual students are encouraged to use their full linguistic range by, for example, doing group work in one language and reporting back in another. Students are encouraged to translate for each other and as a result multilingualism becomes embedded in everyday practice. You accept that you can't understand everything in every language but the group soon works out strategies to minimise misunderstanding and many acquire new language skills simply through exposure and help from friends. This might be seen as a challenge to the teacher's authority but it can help shift the teacher's role towards that of facilitator and mentor. Even if the teacher is monolingual it is possible to learn basic expressions in all the class's languages and empowering the students as interpreters. The result is that everyone can express themselves and noone is excluded on language grounds. If this can be achieved in the classroom where the spoken word is so vital then surely it's possible in an online environment with all the tools and apps we have at our disposal.

Translanguaging pedagogy requires a different type of teacher, a co-learner. Classrooms are increasingly multilingual in the world. It is impossible for teachers to know all the languages of students. But it is possible for teachers to build a classroom ecology where there are books and signage in multiple languages; where collaborative groupings are constructed according to home language so that students can deeply discuss a text in the dominant school language with all their language resources; where students are allowed to write and speak with whatever resources they have and not wait until they have the “legitimate” ones to develop a voice; where all students language practices are included so as to work against the linguistic hierarchies that exist in schools; where families with different language practices are included. Any teacher, including a monolingual one, can take up translanguaging to enable their bilingual students to make deeper meaning and legitimize their home language practices.
What is Translanguaging? An interview with Ofelia García (Psychology Today, March 2016)

Of course there will always be a lingua franca in every class, group or community and it is essential that everyone has at least a working knowledge of it to be part of that group. However we can still facilitate a more multilingual environment to be as inclusive as possible. The main difficulty is winning over monolinguals to seeing it not as a threat but as an enabler. If we can get used to seeing comments in an online discussion in a variety of languages and can cope with the momentary inconvenience of clicking the translate button we may finally hear what previously silent colleagues think and the discussion can only benefit from new perspectives.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Towards seamless learning - redesigning learning spaces

As we move further towards collaborative learning and the integration of technology in education there is an increasing focus on how we design learning spaces, both physical and digital. Schools and colleges all over the world are building new facilities as well as redesigning existing spaces to facilitate and stimulate effective learning and collaboration. This was the focus of a conference I attended in Prague recently, Innovative learning spaces. The participants came from a wide range of fields, from architects to facilities management, from university leaders to teachers and e-learning specialists and that mix produced many good discussions.

As we move from seeing education as the transfer of information to active investigation, collaboration and meaning making we need to design learning spaces that facilitate this. Both physical and digital spaces are all too often designed for teacher-centred information transfer with limited or less than inspiring opportunities for discussion. The traditional lecture hall, classroom and to a certain extent traditional learning management systems are examples of this but many institutions are now redesigning these. Classrooms are becoming active learning classrooms, a model developed by the University of Minnesota, where students work in problem-solving groups with the teacher as facilitator. Lecture halls can be converted to a cabaret layout where students sit around tables to enable group work whilst the teacher contributes with short input from the front but is in general more of a facilitator/moderator.

One interesting approach suggested is to design learning spaces to mirror spaces we generally enjoy being in: parks, cafés, lounges, kitchens etc. If you create a familiar and comforable setting people will naturally gather there. For individual work there are many examples of cosy self-study areas with comfortable armchairs, screens for privacy and a quiet reflective ambience. Even indoor areas can be designed to feel like a park with plants and ponds and combining areas for group work with more secluded corners for quiet study. Even corridors can be transformed by providing furniture and fittings that can easily be arranged into areas for group work. We can't predict how people will use these spaces but if they are designed with flexibility in mind they can be adapted to suit the needs that emerge. At the same time the devil is often in the detail, those elements that are often overlooked such as availability of electricity sockets or placement of lights, see especially David Hopkins' post Learning spaces – are we doing enough?

Much of the conference's focus was naturally on transforming physical learning spaces but what about the digital arena? Up until recently digital spaces simply reproduced traditional teaching, closed-group teaching in the LMS, lecture capture systems and storage for countless PowerPoints and pdf files. Many of today's digital tools are simply too complex, trying to cram in too many features and options. All too often design and usability have been sacrificed and the result is the digital equivalent of the Swiss army knife; lots of functions but not very good at any of them.

Universities today often have several campus sites, often geographically far apart and so the one space that all staff and students have in common in the digital space. Isn't it time to devote more time and resources to redesigning our digital spaces? New buildings are extremely costly and are seldom even questioned whereas any significant investment in the digital spaces comes under intense scrutiny. One important concept developed during the conference by several speakers was that we should strive to fully integrate the physical and digital spaces and foster seamless learning. Students need to learn how to move easily between their physical and digital spaces and see them as all part of the learning process.

The overall impression I got from the conference is that there are plenty of exciting innovative developments taking place in the physical space. We saw lots of inspiring photos of new buildings and concepts that are transforming the concept of the university campus. In the digital space there are certainly inspiring examples of virtual and augmented reality applications as well as the increasing interest in gamification and simulation. However I feel that in order to fully realise the concept of seamless learning more work is needed in the digital space. How can we create the digital equivalents of the parks, cafés and lounges that are now becoming so central on campus? How do we design a digital campus that students feel comfortable with and integrates seamlessly with the physical spaces?

Presentations from the conference will be published in the near future I believe but in the meantime you are welcome to look through the slideshow of my own contribution.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Memories of an analogue world

Digital technology is such an integral part of our lives today that it's easy to forget how things were before the revolution. Unlike many of my colleagues I was completely uninterested in computers until the internet came along. Pre-1990 computers were simply more trouble than they were worth and I couldn't see any advantage in learning how to use them. But once I discovered www I was converted; suddenly the world opened up!

The fact that a large section of the population doesn't know what life was like before the digital revolution is captured in a post on Quartz, What it feels like to be the last generation to remember life before the internet. The article reviews a new book by Michael Harris called The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. It's very popular for my generation to be skeptical or even dismissive of today's digital deluge but Harris avoids such sweeping generalisations and instead reflects on how his own behaviour has changed over the years, especially in terms of being always connected. We have become addicted to connection and terrified of missing something.

“When you wake up, you have this gift of a blank brain. You could fill it with anything. But for most of us, we have this kind of panic. Instead of wondering what should I do, we wonder what did I miss. It’s almost like our unconsciousness is a kind of failure and we can’t believe we’ve been offline for eight hours,” he says. It is habits like this that are insidious, not the internet itself. It is a personal thing.

I think we can all identify with the feeling of being a slave to our updates and feeds. They provide us with recognition, approval, belonging and those are extremely powerful motivators. Harris recommends spending a month on digital detox as a way of reflecting on your digital identity, something I haven't tried and suspect I would find extremely hard to achieve unless I combined it with a holiday in some remote part of the world.

But let's think back to the "good old days". How did we communicate then? Today I can keep in touch with hundreds of friends and colleagues on social media to the extent that when I do meet one of them in person I can immediately ask them about their daughter's recent wedding or their new job. I know contacts on Facebook are fairly superficial but for 90% of my connections the alternative is no contact whatsoever. I remember when I first moved to Sweden in 1983 I spent many hours a week writing, with pen and paper, very similar letters to friends and relatives in the UK. Without a photocopier I simply had to write the same thing again and again! This was very time consuming but was quite simply the only way I could keep these relationships going. Phone calls were extremely expensive and generally carried out in draughty phone boxes that had an insatiable appetite for coins.

Keeping in touch with the latest news was tricky until I had learnt Swedish. English language newspapers were available but tended to be at least two days old and tuning in to crackling radio broadcasts from the BBC World Service wasn't so uplifting either. The idea that I could write my own reflections, publish them myself and gain a worldwide audience (i.e. this blog) was beyond my wildest imagination. My music collection was not portable until the Sony Walkman came along and so all those hours spent waiting for buses and trains as well as the actual journeys were spent in bored silence unless I had a newspaper or book with me.

I visited many interesting places on holiday and would normally take one 36-exposure film for my camera. Developing them was pretty expensive so my memories of these days are now only a handful of decent photos (generally up to half of the photos I took were terrible!). It never occurred to me that I should take a photo of myself sometimes and the result is that I have almost no photos of myself between 18-30 years old, a period that is now seen as prime selfie time.

At work my network was pretty well restricted to the people who worked in the same office plus a few other contacts who I met now and again. When I was not in the office I was simply not available. Messages could be left with the switchboard operator or sent by post. If I needed an answer, however simple, and the person responsible was away on business or holiday I would simply have to try again next week. Collaboration with people in other cities or countries was unthinkable.

Of course our digital world has lead to a magnification of many negative human traits such as hatred, bullying, fraud and narcissism but at the same time has also enabled us to connect with people from all over the world, work together on projects that would have previously been impossible, share our ideas, learn more about other cultures and get a far broader perspective on the world than ever before. Both sides of the coin co-exist though of course we must work harder to promote the positive side. Digital technology is an enabler and the choice of how we use it is ours.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

MOOCs making an impact in developing countries

MOOCs have been criticised by many on the grounds that they have so far only attracted those who already have a university education and live in developed countries. Several studies have pointed in this direction and this has been used as evidence that MOOCs have largely missed their objective of making higher education more accessible to those who are for some reason unable to access traditional forms. However very few have so far actually studied MOOC participation and attitudes in developing countries to see whether they have made an impact or not.

A new study from the University of Washington, The Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative: An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, & South Africa, has done just that. They have studied 1400 MOOC learners from Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa and looked at completion rates, attitudes and satisfaction as well as asking employers about their views on MOOCs as valid credentials on the labour market. What they found was in stark contrast to the commonly held view that MOOCs have missed their mark.

Many of the key findings of this study are surprising. They challenge commonly held beliefs about MOOC usage, defying typical characterizations of how people in resource-constrained environments use technology for learning and employment purposes. In fact, some of the findings are so contrary to what has been reported in the United States and other developed environments that they raise questions necessitating further scrutiny.

Around 80% of the learners studied had low or medium income and the vast majority had low or intermediate digital skills levels. Furthermore almost half of the respondents received a certificate for their MOOC participation, far above normal levels, and many saw MOOC participation as a step on the way to recognised professional qualifications. The employers in the survey were generally positive to MOOCs and awareness was fairly high. They were not seen as equivalent to traditional education but at the same time were not simply dismissed. This all suggests that MOOCs are indeed making an impact where they are most needed and in the conclusion of the article the authors recommend further studies in this area.

In closing, the authors believe this study has made a significant contribution to understanding MOOC usage in less-developed country contexts that both provides stakeholders in workforce development and education with insights and offers a foundation on which future research can be built. The potential for increasing MOOC uptake and improving employment opportunities, especially for more marginalized populations, is clearly there. This is promising, and urges action since the data shows that MOOC users are savvy in using the knowledge they’ve gained from MOOCs to advance their professional aspirations.

I hope we see further work in this area because there is enormous potential for open education and we need to challenge the negative image of MOOCs only attracting middle class graduates from developed countries. If there are signs that they are offering opportunities to people without access to traditional higher education they need to be encouraged and brought to light. It is particularly interesting that most of the learners in the survey did not see technical issues and lack of infrastructure as major barriers to learning from MOOCs. Those who want to learn find a way round such issues in general.

However I also believe that open courses (not all open courses are MOOCs and not all MOOCs are open) can benefit far more people in both developed and developing countries if we can also offer them the right scaffolding. Organisations such as libraries, learning centres, vocational training colleges etc can offer face-to-face and/or online support groups for open learners, providing academic support, technical support, Englsih language support or the opportunity to discuss the course in their own language. The massive open arena of a MOOC can be very intimidating to those new to online learning and so maybe we can provide them with safe havens, small restrictive groups, for less confident learners to discuss problems with peers and in a familiar environment.

Garrido, M., Koepke, L., Andersen, S., Mena, A., Macapagal, M., & Dalvit, L. (2016). An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, & South Africa. Seattle: Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Teaching is teamwork

One of the biggest barriers to the uptake of educational technology is the simple fact that teachers are already overloaded and don't have time for professional development or testing new ideas and methods. Many already devote hours of unpaid overtime each week to keep up with marking, preparation and a never-ending stream of reports and administration. They realise that they may lack some necessary digital skills and that maybe they should spend more time redesigning their courses but good intentions generally come to nothing when the term starts and the day-to-day demands of teaching must get top priority. Furthermore, teaching is still seen by many as a solo activity where you are expected to be subject expert, classroom manager, IT-support, counsellor, administrator etc. The demands of teaching today mean that trying to combine all of these roles in one person simply leads to stress and feelings of inadequacy.

Teachers are stressed and the solution generally offered by governments is to hire more teachers. This is of course positive but a post by Willem van Valkenburg, We don't need more teachers, we need more course teams, offers a wise alternative solution, namely shifting the focus to giving teachers more support in the form of multi-skilled course teams. Team teaching has been around for many years but the teacher is only one part of the teams that Valkenburg proposes. Teachers need the support of an educational technologist, librarian, assessment expert, multimedia expert, student assistents and so on. One teacher simply cannot be expected to perform all of these roles, even if there are many who make valiant attempts to do so (often at a cost to themselves).

Investing in extra teachers in higher education might seem like a proper way of spending extra budget. Investing in better course teams will have a much bigger effect to unburden teachers. Don’t invest in extra teachers, make existing teachers much more effective by properly supporting them. So better value for money!

The key is a change of culture and such changes are the hardest to achieve. The solo teacher is a strong symbol in our society and is embedded in the way educational organisations are run. Moving towards a team model demands changes in how education is run; it affects budgets, quality systems, regulations, job descriptions and career development. Many attempts to move towards a team culture are thwarted by traditional structures and administrative restrictions. The role of support staff needs to be made more visible and rewarded accordingly. Many institutions have all of these support roles in place but they are thinly spread and the concept of a course team is not established in the institutional administration and culture. When teachers can focus on teaching and work as part of a qualified and recognised team then we can move forward. Until then we will simply keep trying to put out fires.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Unsocial networking

Have you noticed a change in your Facebook feed over the last couple of years? How many genuinely personal posts do you see per day? In the past we laughed at the idea of people posting what they had for breakfast or other daily trivia but today I welcome such posts because they connect me with a person. Sadly most posts in my feed are just soapboxing or commercial. Many simply broadcast "evidence" for their particular ideology and in many cases there is no real invitation to discussion. So I am well aware of the ideological convictions of many contacts (they remind me several times a day) but know little of the person behind. We've moved away from creating our own content to sharing others' content, preaching to the converted and at the unconverted. The network isn't really social anymore.

There was so much promise that social media would foster dialogue and collaboration over borders but sadly they are becoming echo-chambers and in some cases lawless arenas where bullies, bigots and extremists destroy all attempts at open discussion. Many people are bullied into leaving the main platforms like Facebook and Twitter and even if you're not subject to troll attacks there's simply not enough meaningful interaction to make it worthwhile staying. Instead of promoting freedom, openness and democracy, social media seem to be having the opposite effect. Of course there are still excellent groups and communities where genuine interaction thrives but these are mostly closed or restricted due to the threat of spammers and trolls.

This especially important in education where social media can offer exciting new oportunities for sharing knowledge, resources and experience, both for teachers and students. However I can understand many teachers' reluctance to use social media professionally when they see the excesses that are often spotlighted in the media. Even in professional circles the discussion can turn sour and it only takes one troll to spoil a whole community. Because of this it is essential that we discuss collaborative and participative literacy with colleagues and students and take care to create common ground rules for the communities we use.

I suspect it is too late to radically turn the tide but maybe we can think a little more about how we use social networks and try to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Here are some personal preferences and tips, in no particular order:
  • Don't preach. Interesting articles are fine but not the same topic all the time. You won't change my views by bombarding your contacts, they will simply switch you off.
  • Be personal sometimes. Tell about your life, small bits of trivia, with a bit of humour and self-distance.
  • Please don't use reposting options that use several platforms at once (eg everything you post on Twitter is instantly reposted on Facebook). It can be seen as spam. 
  • Develop your own basic social media plan. Decide on clear profiles for each of your accounts and stick to them, eg Twitter for work related material, Facebook for more personal content, Instagram for photos, LinkedIn for purely professional matters.
  • If you want to post daily photos and updates of your children, cats, gym visits, diet etc consider creating a group for this and inviting friends who you know will be interested. You can arrange your friends on facebook into different categories and then when you post you can choose whether to broadcast to all or to send only to one category (eg cat lovers). The rest of us don't mind occasional glimpses into these areas but not every day!
I confess I have broken these rules myself but I'm trying to clean up my act!
Do you recognize this trend? Any other tips?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

So, what have MOOCs ever done for us?

CC0 Public Domain by Chris Adamus on Unsplash
Whenever new ideas come to light there are always people who immediately dismiss them without really trying to even understand the innovation. Then when it doesn't immediately live up to initial promises they say "I told you so" and label it as yet another expensive flop. This is especially true in education and at the moment the MOOC is under heavy fire from all sides. Certainly MOOCs have not lived up to the overblown hype of the boom years (revolutionising higher education, providing free education for all etc) but those headlines were typical click bait from news media and corporations rather than the views of the teachers actually involved in designing and running the courses. Right now MOOCs are deep in Gartner's dreaded trough of disillusionment with many skeptics trumpeting their demise. However, as the Gartner curve predicts, the real development occurs after the hype has died and the skeptics have left it for dead.

MOOCs are not dead, they are morphing into new areas and development continues. So what have MOOCs ever done for us? Here are a few benefits and opportunities, though far from a comprehensive list.
  • If the hype had any benefit it at least put the whole field of online learning in the public spotlight and caught the attention of decision makers in a way that all the previous 15 years of online learning had failed to do. Admittedly it lead to some false conclusions, such as that online learning was invented by Stanford, MIT etc around 2011, but it put the discussion firmly on the agendas of most university boards.
  • The criticism that early xMOOCs were simply broadcast education using an instructivist pedagogy has resulted in many institutions trying different methods for increasing interactivity and personalisation at scale. This is still work in progress but many MOOCs are now able to offer more interactive and participatory elements. This experimentation also has relevance to for-credit courses where campus groups can number several hundred students. How can MOOC strategies benefit campus courses?
  • MOOCs still have enormous potential to provide greater outreach for institutions and to enhance lifelong learning. What is only now being investigated is that widened participation in higher education requires extensive scaffolding. Allowing local colleges, learning centres, libraries or companies to provide add-on services (both online and on-site) like study support, local discussion groups, local certification etc can enable more people to take a first step into higher education.
  • The high profile xMOOCs aren't going away any time soon and keep increasing as more and more universities join the major platforms. Even the criticised instructivist courses have a lot of faithful followers who want to quickly get an overview of a subject at their own pace and without any time-consuming group work or interaction. This idea of the MOOC as an interactive course book may not be pedagogically sophisticated but if it works for thousands of people then that's fine. As long as we have a choice.
  • The whole MOOC phenomenon is an investigation into the scalability of education. How massive can a course be? How do we approach mass education and how can we combine scale with engagement and interaction? This is a whole new avenue that is constantly evolving and will go on beyond the usefulness of the term MOOC (already past its sell-by date in my opinion).
  • All MOOCs are not the glossy high profile courses seen on the main platforms. The cMOOC variants have also been evolving but completely off the media radar and continue to offer collaborative learning to smaller specialist groups. They may not be massive but there are plenty of innovative courses that have developed from the constructivist/connectivist principles of the early MOOCs. Lessons learned here are also being applied in regular for-credit courses.
The problem is that innovation takes time to really kick in and there will always be teething trouble and hiccups along the way. Many times the innovation breaks through when applied to an area that the original iteration hadn't even considered. I still hope that the term MOOC can soon be filed in the archives and that we can move on to investigating how online learning can be developed in a wide variety of areas, both in combination with traditional forms and completely online. Some avenues for future development will be open and free, others will be commercial and for-profit. If we stop using the term MOOC things might get less confusing.

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.

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).