Thursday, November 9, 2017

The fear factor


The world is changing at a breathtaking pace and it's so easy to feel overwhelmed. Driving this change are several global megatrends: globalisation, digitalisation, environmental change, demographic change (aging population) and urbanisation. We are all familiar with these developments but an excellent blog post by Cecilia Bjursell adds an extra dimension. If you can read Swedish I can thoroughly recommend the post (Den 6:e megatrenden - well worth a read even via Google Translate). She raises an overriding trend that could outweigh all the others put together, namely fear. Fear of all the other megatrends is leading to a backlash that is threatening to derail all the trend analyses of the last few years. We have so far assumed that society is in general developing in a linear and predictable manner towards greater freedom and equality but fear of change is now twisting that linear development into something extremely volatile. Of course, fear is a natural reaction to change and healthy skepticism is essential, but all too often this fear of change leads to destructive reactions. The danger is that fear will become the overriding megatrend.

The fear factor is very evident in education. Digitalisation offers exciting new opportunities for providing flexible and accessible education for all, enabling global collaboration and making scientific research available to all. However it also demands that institutions, teachers and learners change the way they work and take on new roles. These changes are radical ad demand retraining and rethinking. In the face of this many people feel insecure, inadequate and threatened. Many base their fear on misconceptions about the changes they face. Many feel helpless and overwhelmed and instead of looking for support or ways to cope with the change simply dig a trench and defend their position. Institutions may see digitalisation as a Pandora's box and prefer to keep the lid tightly locked rather than face the horde of demons that need to be addressed if the lid is opened even slightly.

The most important issue here is to recognise fear as a major trend. Technology brings so many opportunities to create a more open, tolerant and educated world. That world may be possible to achieve but first we need to work on reducing the fear factor. Exaggerated tech-optimism tends to provoke a similarly exaggerated negative response. The backlash is all too evident. How can we respond to people's fear of change, how can we reduce the threat of change and can we change the rhetoric from threats of major disruption to the promise of natural evolution instead?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Developing online collaborative competence

CC0 Public domain by Geralt on Pixabay
Education has until the last 20 years always been based around synchronous meetings in a physical space. Lectures, seminars and group discussions take place at scheduled times in specific places and if you can't attend, you miss out. The alternative was self-study. Digital technology has enabled the rise of asynchronous interaction, at first as simple text-based discussion forums and later developing to include audio and video interaction, social media, simulations and game-based learning. However, synchronous interaction is still seen as the ideal form for education and asynchronous interaction is still a second-best solution. A large proportion of educational technology is devoted to replicating the physical synchronous meeting as lecture capture, webinars and online group discussions using video, chat or both. However I would like to suggest that asynchronous interaction should be given much more respect and that we see it as a complement to and at times a better alternative to synchronous interaction.

Strengths of asynchronous interaction
  • You are never alone in your studies. Support is always available, either in the form of recorded tutorials and FAQ pages or by asking questions in class forums and other online communities. In many asynchronous online communities you can get answers within minutes and of course if necessary you can easily meet colleagues in a chat or a video call to discuss your problem.
  • Everyone has a voice. In synchronous arenas (both classroom and in web meetings) only the most confident students have a voice and dominate the discussion. Often it's the teacher who takes centre stage, even in seminars. In a discussion forum or using video tools like VoiceThread or Flipgrid everyone gets a chance to make their point and be seen and heard. Many students want to read more and reflect before voicing an opinion and the asynchronous mode gives them time to do so.
  • More time to think can lead to a deeper and more nuanced discussion. Often in class the opinions raised are spontaneous and superficial. The online discussion gives time for ideas to mature and the level of discussion can therefore be deeper.
  • Greater flexibility. No matter when you prefer to study you can still be part of the discussion.
  • Enables global participation. Trying to find a suitable synchronous meeting time for students from different time zones can be a major headache. An asynchronous arena offers suits everyone.
Weaknesses of asynchronous interaction
  • Effective asynchronous interaction is dependent on synchronous meetings to establish a sense of community in the group. This can be achieved by meeting either in a physical space or online but without first building an atmosphere of mutual trust and a sense of belonging all asynchronous interaction will be at best superficial.
  • Large open discussion forums will also become dominated by the vociferous minority and can easily become toxic unless a clear code of conduct is communicated and enforced. Better to divide the class into study groups with facilitators/tutors to establish safe spaces for real discussion.
  • Reaching a critical mass. Groups need a certain amount of encouragement and motivation to discuss effectively and this means that some members must be very active at the start to provide lots of positive feedback to comments and encourage the quieter members to contribute. This requires a conscious effort and training.
The key to more effective use of asynchronous learning spaces is the development of online collaborative literacy. Few people today have this skill and simply don't know how to use online spaces for meaningful discussion. One way to develop is maybe to re-examine how we use synchronous meetings and in some cases replace synchronous with asynchronous. I'm not saying that we should not meet each other in the future, that is a basic human need, but that we need to learn how to interact in new ways as well. The widespread use of asynchronous communication in the business world makes learning this skill a central part of higher education. We need to learn how to fully exploit the advantages of asynchronous learning spaces.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Redefining "failure"


Success is the exception, not the rule. This idea struck me when reading an article on Wikimedia's blog, The crowdsourcing fallacy, which examines the pitfalls of building a service on the so-called "wisdom of the crowd". The clearest success story in this field is, of course, Wikipedia. If it had been pitched as a commercial project it would never have got off the ground, but the fact that it is the result of an unprecedented level of voluntary public collaboration has built up by far the largest reference work in human history. On paper, the venture was a non-starter, as the article states, "it only works in practice; in theory it could never work”. Its success could never have been planned, as is the case with most success stories. The success narrative of crowdsourcing is very attractive and has lead to many brave ventures, but the post provides a vital reality check: Your crowdsourcing effort will fail, most of the time, because most things fail. And because important things are hard.

We all love success stories. They can inspire us to study, work hard and persevere. At conferences we are fed a diet of best practice, projects that exceed expectations or innovative companies that have hit the headlines. We idolise business leaders who made it big and circulate their words of wisdom in the hope that some of the stardust will touch us. Our increasingly competitive culture is reinforced by countless reality TV shows where the winner takes it all and failure is not an option. To be branded a loser is the worst humiliation you can receive. The problem is that for every winner there must be millions of "losers" and success is the exception rather than the rule.

Of course we can admire and congratulate the successes but we need to look more realistically at failure. The word itself is loaded with prejudice. If success is so rare, then partial success or a lack of success are the norm. Success often comes unexpectedly and cannot always be rationalised. Often it's simply about having the right idea at the right time and getting the right breaks. Equally good or better ideas with equally sound business plans and strategies can sink without trace. Many failures, however, can then form the embryo of future success, so we need to question the use of the word failure; failure on what time scale?

What I wonder about here is that we need to move away from this simplistic categorisation of success/failure or win/lose. Most things we try to do have limited effects and don't usually meet our high expectations. Instead of seeing this as failure we need to see what we can learn from each venture and move on to try a different approach or a new angle. Success stories can give us a vision to aim towards but not getting there should be seen as perfectly normal and acceptable. Too many people today are hooked on the lure of making it big that they cannot be satisfied with anything less. All our efforts are part of a learning process and although each step may not seem to make any kind of impact they add experience and ideas to an iterative process. Even a total failure offers lessons to be learned if we can accept them on that level and not fall into the success/failure trap.

Too much of our education system (and of course society in general) is based on competition and the inhuman belief in the survival of the fittest. We should instead be developing collaboration and problem-solving and this requires that we stop branding activities and people as successes or failures. If learning is the focus of education then failure becomes a lesson learned and success an occasional happy outcome. A new vocabulary and mindset is needed.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Searching for the next big thing


Just over the next hill we'll find Eldorado. Just one more reorganisation and we'll reach Nirvana. Waiting for the killer application. The problem with this is that once you get over that hill you find a new hill on the other side but we still cling to the idea that one day we'll get to the perfect solution to our problems. In education the quest is to find the ultimate teaching method and the corporate sector leads the race with a great deal of brave predictions and powerful marketing campaigns.

An article by John Warner in Inside Higher Ed, MOOCs Are "Dead." What's Next? Uh-oh, takes up this theme after Udacity's announcement that they are dropping MOOCs and instead focusing on online corporate training. Udacity and their founder Sebastian Thrun have been responsible for many of the most hyped statements about MOOCs over the past few years and have recently been promoting MOOC packages, nanodegrees, as new paths to employment. This move was soon echoed by other MOOC consortia in the form of micromasters and specializations. The article points out that Udacity's journey from MOOC evangelists to drop-outs has taken a mere five years (feels like at least double that time). Major changes in education simply don't happen as quickly as return on investment requirements demand and reveals that the whole idea was much more about launching a profitable product than finding a viable new form of education. It is all part of the eternal quest for a teaching machine (see Audrey Watters' excellent summary of this phenomenon) based on the belief that teaching and learning are predictable processes that can be effectivised and productified.

Maybe Udacity isn’t strictly a teaching “machine” except the mentality of its designers suggest they view their platform this way. They believed that the platform itself could deliver “education,” rather than recognizing that the education is not a product but a process, one that happens (or not) inside of those being educated. Udacity seems to view learning like a virus. As long as you’re in close enough proximity to an educational product, you will learn.

At the same time there is plenty evidence that MOOCs are far from dead but maybe they have turned a corner and are heading back to the higher education sphere from whence they came. A new European report by EADTU, MOOC strategies of European institutions, shows the diversity of MOOCs in Europe and in particular the fact that European institutions are increasingly developing open courses outside the framework of the main commercial consortia.

The survey shows that the majority of HEIs (66%) are not connected to one of the big MOOC platform providers (e.g., edX, Coursera, FutureLearn, Miriada X, etc.), but offer their MOOCs in their institutional platforms or in available regional/national platforms. That the uptake of MOOCs in Europe is maturing at a much higher level compared to the US, is also an achievement of the regional, partially language-bound platforms.

Maybe as the corporate sector becomes impatient of the low return on investment from MOOCs, the universities will begin to develop open education on their own terms in regional and national constellations. The MOOC is not a miracle cure for anything but is one of many forms of online education under development. The form came from within higher education, was briefly exploited by big business and seems now to be returning to the universities where there is (hopefully) more of a focus on learning than making a profit.

The corporate spotlight is now moving over to new potential "wonder cures" such as personalised learning and learning analytics. I don't mean that these innovations are not worthwhile; they all contribute to development, sometimes in unexpected ways. However, there are too many intangible factors involved in learning that cannot be encapsulated in any one technical solution. You learn because someone inspires you, because you have the internal motivation, because you have the right support from teachers and peers, because you have access to education, because ... Courses, tools, platforms, resources, games, simulations can all contribute but the intangibles of learning are so important that none of these factors can guarantee success. There is no magic solution to learning. It's very personal.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Invisible skills


A recurring theme in the media is the perception that universities are not equipping students with the skills demanded by employers and that there is a serious gap between theoretical knowledge and practical work skills. One common complaint is that university degree certificates generally focus on describing mastery of content rather than the development of soft skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, leadership, digital literacy etc. Of course, matters have improved over the last 20 years with learning outcomes often including practical skills and many programmes that include work experience and close cooperation with industry. However, there still seems to be a problem in reliably assessing soft skills and including this in credentials.

A new report, Skills, Competencies and Credentials, by Alan Harrison (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) investigates this issue and argues that university credentials still fail to provide the information that employers require when hiring staff.

This state of affairs does not serve most undergraduate students well: the graduating student’s credential and the associated transcript indicate the extent of the student’s knowledge of content, but neither directly conveys any information to employers about the level of the student’s skills. As a result, employers, in respect of most undergraduate degrees, must infer the level of skills from information about content knowledge.

The report describes an awareness gap; the problem that students themselves are often not aware of the skills they have developed at university because those skills were not explicitly part of the assessment. Developing critical thinking, for example, is integrated in all courses but is often done so in a manner invisible to the students and not explicitly tested. Many projects and assignment aim to develop creativity, teamwork, communication and organisational skills but that aim is not always clear to the students nor are the skills explicitly developed or assessed and recognised. 

Harrison then looks at several attempts to address these issues such as competency-based degrees and e-portfolios and comes to the conclusion that greater cooperation is required between universities and employers in determining key skills and agreeing on how to assess these.

Universities must come to terms with two facts: first, their undergraduate programs are where general skills are developed and second, it is these skills that make the graduates of these programs employable. Universities need to work with each other and with input from employer groups to the point where they agree on both what these skills are and how they are most effectively assessed. Once this is resolved, the next step will be to embed these skills into the curriculum and include the outcome of the assessment of these skills in a concise student record that quickly and effectively tells employers what the graduating student knows and can do. In short, the universities need to do all they can to help students make the match with employers.

One promising element missing in the report is the growing use of badges by universities to provide evidence of soft skills. Badges are awarded to students who meet set skills criteria during their course work and can be a very useful supplement to the more content-based formal credentials. However as long as badges are not tied to the hard currency of credits they may be seen as merely optional extras by students rather than as essential elements of their degrees. I wonder if badges are then the real answer. The answer lies probably in providing more comprehensive credentials that describe both the knowledge and skills acquired. 

Reference: Harrison, A. (2017) Skills, Competencies and Credentials. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Into the open - but only when you're ready


Openness takes courage and confidence. Even in the relatively secure setting of an institution's learning management system it's a major step for many to post a comment on the class forum and even more daunting to publish a blog post or comment publicly. What if my comment is seen as too simplistic or if I have completely misunderstood the question? What if my argumentation is too thin or my references wrong? What if my language skills are not good enough and I make a stupid grammatical error? What can I contribute to a discussion that is already full of better ideas than I can think of? By actively participating I become very vulnerable. Many learners therefore choose to take a low profile and avoid open learning spaces. Many see study as a private activity and see little benefit in sharing and discussing, especially in full public view.

It's always a rewarding experience to be a student now and again and find out how active and open you really are as a learner. Martin Weller has written an interesting post on his recent experience as an online student, What I learnt from being a student. He describes the feelings of inadequacy many students experience and despite his academic standing as an expert in open education he was grateful that his course offered him the safety of a closed group.

I would have been reluctant to have been forced to display this scarcity of knowledge in the open, so I was grateful for a closed environment, and careful feedback from tutors to scaffold my learning.

Participation and collaboration are skills that need time and support to develop. Not all learners realise why these skills are important and so interactive assignments must be clearly justified and the benefits of collaborative learning explained. This means starting with simple interaction in small closed study groups and then progressing to more complex interaction as the group begins to develop a sense of community.

Give me a reason to interact – given my time constraints, I didn’t do much interaction in the forums. And this was fine with me, I was glad the course didn’t make lots of interaction compulsory just for the sake of it. But also without a major prompt to do so, it was easy to avoid interaction all together, and if this was my first time studying, that would be a shame.

We often assume that openness and active participation are essential to learning and to a large extent this is true. However there are several layers to openness and each layer takes time to master before finally daring to "go public". For some learners, the small group discussions are as far as they want to go in terms of openness whilst others relish public view from the start. But the ground rule must be not to force openness on learners but instead let it develop in stages, making sure that each step is justified and supported. If some don't want to go all the way into the public space then that should be respected. It is, after all, the learning that is central.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Intimacy at scale

CC0 Public domain by Kaboompics on Pexels
If you want to learn something today the opportunities are almost endless. Whatever the subject area you can find a wide range of free open educational resources (texts, lectures, films, podcasts, tests, simulations) and full courses (MOOCs and other forms of open education) in many languages from universities, colleges, schools and organisations. The trouble is that you need to know where to find them and you need to have the digital literacy and study skills necessary to learn in an online environment. You also need to have the confidence and self-belief to learn independently. People with these skills are the ones who are benefiting from open education today. Those who lack these skills are generally not even aware that such opportunities exist. 

The evolution of MOOCs is largely an experiment in scaling online education; how massive can a course be? The answer would seem to be that a course can be very massive under the assumption that the learners are highly motivated, confident, independent and digitally skilled. Everyone else needs support, encouragement and a feeling of belonging to a caring community and that is hard to achieve in a massive environment. Combining scale with a feeling of community and personal support would seem to be an impossible equation. 

Lisa Nielsen takes up the issue of class size in a post called It’s Class Load, Not Just Size, That Matters. She describes how teachers often have to deal with many large classes and an unrealistically high number of students making personal contact and support for all simply impossible. Students who lack confidence need lots of encouragement and feedback and study skills need to be actively developed. Teaching and counselling generally go hand in hand but the latter is seldom recognised in an age obsessed by results. For Lisa the solution is clear. 

If we want students and teachers to succeed, increase the time students spend with their teachers and limit the load. It’s a simple solution where everyone wins.

This is an important discussion for all educational institutions. Large classes in lecture halls are certainly impersonal and lack support and recognition. I once heard the remark that if you sit more than five rows from the front you can call it distance learning. But how does this apply to online learning and in particular the massive variety? Once the teacher student ratio goes above 1:150 the load becomes impossible and the course becomes increasingly self-directed study. There are, however, a number of possible solutions:
  • Involving more teachers and teaching assistants. This can often become prohibitive in terms of costs but one solution can be a network of teachers and former students. One example of this is a course I work with called Open Networked Learning. This is an open online course run in partnership between a number of universities and which also welcomes open learners. We have a core team of four who manage the course and then a large number of facilitators and co-facilitators (volunteer former participants) who support the learners during the course. This means that the learners can be divided into many small study groups where they support each other and get the support of assigned facilitators and co-facilitators. This model works very well but is not massively scalable and relies very much on the goodwill of the co-facilitators..
  • Local support groups. Libraries, adult education colleges or community learning centres can offer a meeting place to help people discover and follow open education courses. By offering a physical (or also online) space as well as support staff the learners can discuss their courses in their own language and get the encouragement and feedback they need to keep going.
  • Peer support. Many MOOCs now offer learners the opportunity to form their own study groups where they can discuss (often in another language than the course language) and get the recognition and feedback necessary to maintain their motivation. The problem here is that most people need clear guidelines on how to build an online group and provide effective peer support.
All of these avenues are being explored today and the answer for massive courses may be a combination of all of them. The key element however is that whatever the scale there must be personal connections. Automated self-study can only take us part of the journey.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Students and educational technology - it's complicated


A recurring narrative in educational technology is that students are driving the change. They are using the creative and collaborative opportunities offered by today's social media and demanding that universities and faculty do the same. This is used as a powerful argument by edtech companies when selling their solutions. This narrative is strongly linked to the idea of students as digital natives and is often the reason for institutions rushing head first into hasty and largely unplanned technology projects. No one wants to appear out of touch with student demands and so major technology projects are launched without first discussing the pedagogical implications and how the technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning. Of course students are using digital tools and arenas in their learning but not as widely and proficiently as the edtech narrative claims.

But are students really demanding change? My own experience leads me to question this to a certain extent. Furthermore, digital literacy is not a simple generation issue but more about whether or not a person is interested in the use of technology. Many students are highly proficient at using digital devices and social media for socialising and entertainment but are unaware of how to use them for work and learning. It would be extremely dangerous to assume that all students are proficient at information retrieval, source criticism, collaborative learning and media skills and most institutions are now integrating these soft skills into all parts of the curriculum. However, this change is not due to student demand but due to teachers becoming aware that these skills are missing and taking action to remedy the gaps.

Sometimes students can be more conservative than faculty and this issue is raised in an article in EdSurge, What If Students Are the Biggest Barrier to Innovation? Even if many students have used a wide range of digital tools and learning spaces in their high school years, whenever they arrive on campus they are told that university is different. Students are generally very pragmatic; they want to get their grades and then a degree in the most efficient way possible. They will adapt to whatever the institution demands. They also have the traditional image of university in their heads and are disappointed if their experience doesn't match it.

... the “metaphor” of the old and wise professor pouring knowledge into students through class lectures is what many graduate students expect. When they don’t get that experience because they are forced to do group work and interact with peers (who they do not view as subject-matter experts), they don’t feel like they are learning.

“I have had students tell me. I am not paying to listen to my neighbor's thoughts, I am paying to hear you,” says Pickett.


This is reinforced by the vocabulary of higher education so if we call the teachers lecturers and the lessons are called lectures then a lecture is naturally what the students expect. Teachers who focus on student-centred learning and concepts such as collaborative learning, flipped classroom, problem-based learning and so on risk negative evaluations from students who expect to be fed with wisdom and knowledge. Expectations, tradition and attitudes are major barriers to change and cannot be overcome simply by logical argument, no matter how much research evidence is available.

I would say that the main drivers of change in terms of educational technology are teachers who are using the technology successfully, often due to a desire to widen their professional skills and a genuine interest in pedagogical innovation. The problem is, however, that many of these teachers have developed their digital skills on their own initiative, usually outside working hours. This ad hoc approach means that teachers' digital skills are not evenly distributed and there is often an alarming digital divide within the teaching staff of most institutions.

This inconsistency is a concern for many students as discussed in an article from JISC in the UK, It’s official - higher education students want staff to be better with digital, not to use more of it. Students in this national survey state clearly that they want all staff to be trained in using digital tools and demand more consistent use of technology rather than more variety.

Don’t allow academic staff to pick their own ways of using digital resources. At the moment each academic uses the virtual learning environment (VLE) in a different way, making it very time consuming to keep switching approaches. It’s also obvious that academic staff have not received adequate training in using these systems.

They are not demanding more technology but a more strategic approach to technology use and fewer bottom-up ad hoc initiatives. Interestingly the survey reveals a concern that online learning lacks a face-to-face element and a fear that more technology means less classroom contact with teachers.

However, when asked what their institution should do and not do, students requested a better use of digital systems, not more, fearing it could be used to replace face-to-face time with staff.

What seems to be missing here is a realisation that online collaboration is an essential skill in many companies and organisations today and that this skill must be developed at university and integrated into all programmes. Sadly online work is still seen as a substitute for "real" contact instead of a valuable skill in itself.

The conclusion is that technology can enhance teaching and learning but to succeed it needs to be explained and introduced gradually. Both teachers and students need to change their perspectives and this takes time. Above all the process requires skilled management and leadership and only when all these conditions are fulfilled will we see successful implementation and integration of technology in education.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Why free is not always best in education


We seem to think that everything on the net must be free and are very reluctant to pay for any service, no matter how good it may be. In education we use a wide range of services and tools in our daily work that are free to use in their basic form. Most of these are so-called freemium services; the basic version is free but if you want more interesting features like personalisation, greater storage capacity or extra functionality then you have to pay. The problem is that the idea of the free internet is so entrenched that few of us ever move on to the commercial version of the tools we use and love so much. We seldom stop to wonder how the people who invent these tools get money to pay their bills. We love free but we dislike all the ads that accompany it. In general if you pay you lose the ads, or at least the vast majority.

So I enjoyed reading Nik Peachey's excellent post this week, Why the culture of ‘free’ is damaging edtech & education, dealing with exactly this question and I just sat there nodding in agreement all the way through. The logic is pretty simple; if we don't pay for these resources the companies that offer them will soon go out of business and we'll lose them. The only exceptions to this principle are resources subsidised by advertising (like Google)and where you are the product, and the open source tools that are developed by enthusiasts without commercial interest. How many digital tools do you actually pay for? I pay for only a handful, the ones I love most, and the yearly cost of the pro versions is often very low. At the same time there are plenty of tools I only use in their free version.

We need to look beyond the mythology of the free internet and accept that good and reliable tools and services cost money, as in the physical world. Teachers are understandably unwilling to use their own money to subscribe but Peachey proposes giving teachers a small budget for digital tools to spend as they see fit, in the same way as many teachers are able to buy relevant literature for professional development.

A better alternative would be for schools to provide a budget for teachers to purchase licences for the tools they want to use with their students. I know that most schools and colleges already have a technology budget, but this is usually a centralised one with teachers often excluded from the purchase decision making process.

Giving teachers a part of this budget would not only ensure that they were able to access the tools and services that they like and need, but would also empower them to be part of the edtech development process within the school and make them much more likely to adopt and use more digital resources.


Of course, the most important digital resources are provided by the institution, such as the learning management system, file storage, e-mail and so on. But there is such a vast range of attractive digital resources out there that it is impossible to restrict teachers to only a handful of approved ones. Each teacher should be able to choose the resources that are most fit for purpose. Which tools would be on your list for upgrading?

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Choose your own reality


Reality and fact are being rapidly undermined by fake news, manipulated photos and films and now even voice manipulation, photoshopping for voice, like Adobe's Voco project which allows you to make people say things they never actually said. It's getting increasingly difficult to check the validity of a news item, especially when it confirms your own opinions, and this presents an enormous challenge for all educators. What happens when there's more fake news than real news? Whose news do you believe? Instead of creating a global meeting place to promote democracy and freedom the internet is now allowing us to create many parallel worlds where totally different perceptions and ideologies exist side by side but almost invisible to each other. The real world is complex, often full of contradictions and grey zones, and there are seldom clear-cut answers. So much easier to turn your back on all that and retreat into a simplistic ideology full of sweeping generalisations and quick solutions, backed up by mountains of fake evidence.

Source criticism is getting harder every week and a rather chilling new challenge is presented in an article in Business Insider, Researchers taught AI to write totally believable fake reviews, and the implications are terrifying. Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers a wealth of exciting new opportunities but can equally be used to undermine society if it comes into the wrong hands. New research by Ben Y. Zhao and colleagues at the University of ChicagoAutomated Crowdturfing Attacks and Defenses in Online Review Systems, has examined the use of AI to automatically generate fake reviews of hotels and restaurants. As AI develops, these fake reviews become almost impossible to spot and if produced on a massive scale could completely undermine the credibility of crowd-sourced guides like Yelp, Amazon or TripAdvisor. If we know that most reviews are manipulated or fake then they all become worthless. This may not seem so big if it is only about comments on discussion threads or review sites but the risk is that this will quickly spread to other fields. As Zhao claims in the BI article:

"In general, the threat is bigger. I think the threat towards society at large and really disillusioned users and to shake our belief in what is real and what is not, I think that's going to be even more fundamental," Zhao said. "So we're starting with online reviews. Can you trust what so-and-so said about a restaurant or product? But it is going to progress.

"It is going to progress to greater attacks, where entire articles written on a blog may be completely autonomously generated along some theme by a robot, and then you really have to think about where does information come from, how can you verify ... that I think is going to be a much bigger challenge for all of us in the years ahead."


Reality is in danger of becoming completely subjective and the challenge for education is how to equip our pupils and students to deal with this fragmented world.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Social soapboxing - the end of Facebook as a meeting place?

CC0 Public domain by sasint on Pexels
I have really enjoyed using Facebook over the years. It has helped me keep in touch with so many people who I could never have kept up with in the days of writing letters or making phone calls. It has also enabled me to get to know acquaintances I have only met briefly at meetings or conferences. I have built up an extensive network of friends, colleagues and contacts using various social media that have enriched my life and work. I have enjoyed getting glimpses of people's lives, what they had for breakfast, commuting problems, amusing comments on everyday routines, jokes, holiday photos, life events and so on. I have also enjoyed many spontaneous and often very funny chats that can suddenly come to life from an often innocuous post. On my side I try to provide a balanced mix from my own life, hopefully with a bit of humour. However, I sense that maybe the golden days are over.

My Facebook feed has changed radically over the last couple of years. There is now much more sponsored content which has moved from the right margin into the main feed and is sometimes hard to distinguish from real posts. The most worrying trend is the lack social contact. Most of my feed consists only of links these days and sometimes it's hard to find a single personal comment in the flood of links to news, articles, propaganda for various causes and of course cat photos (I'm one of very few people in the world who doesn't particularly like cats). I would like to coin the term social soapboxing, an arena where people talk at rather than with each other, all trying to convert friends to their view of the world. We all do it to some extent but I really miss the social and human elements - genuine conversation in a tone of mutual respect.

The dreams we had in the early days of the internet are fading fast. There were brave hopes of creating a platform where the world could meet and share ideas and that the more we discussed with each other the more tolerant we would become. The net would help to spread democracy, tolerance and creativity. To a certain extent it has but only in certain circles. Tragically it has also provided a platform where bullying, hate and extremism can spread freely and where dangerous lies and pure fantasy can be passed off as genuine news. The net is also now almost fully commercialised, largely controlled by massive global corporations who are monitoring and monetising our clicks. The result is that many people are now much more wary of what they post on platforms like Facebook and that could explain the lack of genuinely social content there. The best places to find social interaction are now closed or private groups where administrators make sure that groundrules are followed and remove all irrelevant advertising and soapboxing. Are we leaving the open arenas and moving towards more closed circles?

If Facebook becomes simply a channel for advertising and soapboxing then it will implode and die. I'm still there and most days I find some valuable interaction but the downward spiral seems increasingly clear. Can any other service take over Facebook's role or is there no realistic future in truly social media?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Turning learning into credit

Turning skills and knowledge gained from work experience and non-formal learning (including MOOCs) into recognised credentials is the Gordian knot of the open education movement. Universities offer recognition of prior learning but the process can often be complicated and time-consuming for both student and university. Most people simply don't know that they can get credit for prior learning and therefore never get the recognition and career opportunities that credits could bring. We need to increase awareness of this opportunity and then provide guidance on how to take advantage of it.

Converting knowledge and skills gained form various forms of open education requires verification and getting the learner to demonstrate that they have achieved the right level of proficiency. One very interesting approach to this has been developed by the Open University in the UK with a pilot course called Making your learning count. The course involves helping students to review what they have learned from open educational resources (OER) and course modules in, for example, the Open University's own OER platform OpenLearn and being guided stage by stage through a process of review, adding extra modules of study, peer review and reflection to finally convert their learning into 30 credits at Open University. This can then be a springboard to further studies.

A blog post, A USB port for informal learning, by a member of the course team, Martin Weller, briefly describes the course concept, .

The approach the team have taken then is to base it around 9 tasks. These focus on developing a learning plan, producing a means of communicating your learning to others, making interdisciplinary connections between subjects, and developing peer assessment and digital communication skills. They’ll be guided by their tutor in this, but I think it’s hopefully one of those courses where the diversity of knowledge people bring is a key benefit. You get to see connections between your subject and by explaining your own one to others, consolidate your own understanding. (Martin Weller, 150817, CC BY)

The key to this approach is guidance. Students take a journey where they have to put their previous learning into perspective and are helped by course leaders and peers to build on that knowledge and link it to other skills and disciplines. By going through this process the university can much more easily assess whether the student has met the criteria for credit than a traditional recognition of prior learning approach. Furthermore it helps the students to become more aware of what they know and learn to build on it in a more systematic way. It will be interesting to see the results of this pilot course but if more universities could adopt a similar approach we could have a model for converting open learning into formal recognition that would benefit both learners and the university. I suspect that satisfied participants will be most likely to choose the Open University for further studies before other institutions.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

RSS - the ugly duckling of edtech


I was glad to read a post by Doug Belshaw, Back to the RSS(R), in defence of the seriously untrendy technology RSS as a way of managing your information feeds without getting trapped in the algorithm controlled filter bubble of social media. I have relied on my RSS-reader Netvibes for almost 10 years now and it's still my main source of news, articles and publications in my field. Actaully I couldn't write this blog without it. In recent years however it has largely drifted out of sight and many sites forget to include an RSS feed. Of course I can follow these sites on Facebook or Twitter and in some cases I do, but RSS gives you the full news feed, not edited highlights. The trouble with following sites via social media is that I am helplessly dependent on the mysterious algorithms that control what news I see. Often I miss important news from a friend or site because for some reason Facebook didn't chose to show me that particular update. The updates also get lost in the crowd of posts in my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

The biggest problem with RSS has been its extremely dull name that suggests something very technical and probably complicated. It is in fact quite the reverse and once you've got your RSS reader (Netvibes, Digg Reader, Feedly etc) up and running you can add new feeds with a couple of clicks. You decide what feeds to follow and all the posts on that feed are dutifully presented. I follow around a hundred sites (news, blogs, journals, organisations) and can browse through the day's headlines in a few minutes, only clicking on ones that awaken my curiosity. An added attraction is that most academic databases include RSS feeds (though some are extremely hard to find) and this means that you get alerts on new publications that match your search criteria.

Is it time to relaunch RSS, preferably with a new name? It's a more focused and comprehensive tool for keeping up to date with your field and deserves a better reputation. And it's good for your digital well-being, as Belshaw writes at the end of his post:

Don’t get me wrong, algorithmic news feeds can be useful, but they should be used as part of a wider, richer environment that you control. It’s tempting to use the metaphor of healthy eating here: are we carelessly consuming whatever junk information is served up to us, or are we carefully ensuring we get a balanced information diet, including your five-a-day?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Convenient truths


I have written many times about the convenient half-truths and catch-phrases that we all love to use when discussing the use of technology in education. This applies equally to both sides of the discussion: those who see the benefits of digitalisation and those who prefer traditional methods. We develop an arsenal of stories and narratives whose origins and evidence become ever more misty but are used again and again in articles and conference lectures simply because of their feel-good factor. However, because they are based more on emotions than evidence they become mantras that lead to trench warfare between the two sides. The narratives of digital natives, wisdom of the crowd, multitasking and education is broken are rather worn out but are somehow still so compelling. I'm guilty of contributing to the spread of these in the past but am becoming more wary of using such sweeping generalisations no matter how rhetorically effective they may still be.

Another well-worn narrative that deserves to be deflated is the one about educating students for jobs that don't exist yet. I have often used this one to good effect to justify the increased use of technology in education but I can recommend a new article on the topic by Benjamin Doxtdator, A Field Guide to ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’. There is, of course, a certain amount of truth in the argument but it is far from new. The article points back to similar statements back in 1957 in the western panic after the Soviet Union succeeded in launching the Sputnik satellite.

While the claim is often presented as a new and alarming fact or prediction about the future, Devereux C. Josephs said much the same in 1957 during a Conference on the American High School at the University of Chicago on October 28, less than a month after the Soviets launched Sputnik.

The same could easily have been said at many points in history. Who could have predicted that the school pupils of 1900 might later become pilots, radio technicians or female members of parliament? We have never been able to predict what changes in society or what new forms of work will emerge in the future and we never will. Doxtdator suggests that this argument, like many others used by advocates of technology inspired disruption in education, is a simplification of more complex social movements.

The kind of complex thinking we deserve about education won’t come in factoids or bullet-point lists of skills of the future. In fact, that kind of complex thinking is already out there, waiting.

Read the article for the full picture but my point here is that we all need to be more cautious about spreading these convenient and attractive narratives simply because they justify our position. Relying on slogans and half-truths only provokes a similar response from our critics and soon the discussion degenerates into a pie fight.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How relevant is open education for refugees?

Group work in progress on-site and online
As part of my involvement in the ongoing European project MOONLITE, examining the use of MOOCs and open education for social inclusion and employability, we arranged a hybrid webinar workshop at the recent EDEN 2017 conference in Jönköping, Sweden. The workshop asked the question "How relevant is open education for refugees?" and comprised a combination of input from project members with group discussions both on-site and online. All the results from the session, group work, slideshows, link to the recording and links to other projects are gathered on a common Padlet page.

Padlet page with collected notes, slideshows and links from the workshop
We provided an overview of current projects and initiatives that offer MOOCs as a pathway to cultural and linguistic integration, higher education and employment and then asked the participants to answer questions assessing how relevant this form of education is for such a target group. I blogged on this topic recently, MOOCs for refugees - work in progress, and the ideas from this post very much reflect the workshop discussions. The benefits of using open online courses (massive or not) were clear to all participants, namely:
  • Easy access, always available
  • Mobile-friendly courses
  • Large variety of courses in many languages
  • No fees
  • Flexible
  • Preferably combined with on-site support, face-to-face groups with own language support
Obstacles to using open courses with refugees were more numerous and some have not really been resolved:
  • Do refugees accept MOOCs as being culturally acceptable and relevant?
  • Very heterogeneous group and hard to find any common denominator
  • Lack of awareness of open education
  • Lack of digital skills and experience of online education
  • Cultural adjustments take time and many suffer from stress, preventing them from focusing on learning
  • Are open education solutions addressing the right problems?
  • Lack of recognition of open education in the host country
  • Poor infrastructure in refugee camps
  • Recognition of prior learning
  • Provision of support and mentoring (both face-to-face and online)
We also asked whether existing initiatives had succeeded in meeting the needs of refugees. The general feeling was that although there were many success stories the use of open education is still largely fragmented and with very limited impact. The vast majority of refugees are still not aware of open courses or are unable to take advantage of them for the reasons noted above. MOOCs are only one of many options to address the challenge of integrating refugees into their new countries and top priority for most of them is recognition of their skills and getting hold of credentials that are valid in their country of residence. If open online courses can lead to such educational hard currency then they will be popular. They must be seen as a pathway to higher education and to employment, very much the focus of our project!

MOOCs and other types open education should focus on the most essential skills: language, socio-cultural integration and online study skills. However, in almost all areas a combination of digital and face-to-face solutions is essential. Refugees need to make personal contacts in their new homeland and online education can therefore only be part of the solution. The group discussions offered many examples of services and solutions that offer a smoother pathway to integration. Matching refugees with people working in the same profession is one method already in use in many countries. A Swedish initiative called Welcome is an app that enables refugees to make contact with Swedish volunteers to chat online or to meet up for a coffee and discussion. Another Swedish initiative, Minclusion, is developing mobile apps for learning Swedish and facilitating intercultural communication. The key is putting the refugees in contact with local people who can help them with everyday questions, language development, legal problems, coaching/mentoring, job shadowing and just everyday human contact.

Online learning can be very effective for people whose lives are otherwise full with career. family and friends. For refugees human contact, building up a new identity and regaining broken confidence are the main priorities. They can benefit from online education but always combined with physical meetings and support.