Sunday, January 22, 2017

Combating academic spam

CC0 Public domain on Max Pixel
One of the week's most interesting stories is the disappearance of Jeremy Beale's (University of Colorado at Denver) excellent watchdog site on predatory journals and publishers. According to an article in Inside Higher EdNo More 'Beall's List', the site was suddenly taken down and replaced with a notice "This service is no longer available" and since then Beale has not been available for any comment, leading to speculation in social media and news sites. According to an article in ScienceInsider:

Beall declined to comment. But a CU Denver spokesperson told ScienceInsider that Beall made a “personal decision” to take down his list of low-quality journals that charge authors a fee to publish, often with little or no review or editing. The spokesperson says the blog was not hacked, nor was it taken down as a result of legal threats, and Beall will remain on the school’s faculty. The spokesperson could not confirm whether the blog's removal is permanent.

Beale's list has become an important monitor of publications that spam academics, offering publication at a price and falsely claiming to use peer review, as well as a myriad of bogus conferences that invite academics to contribute (at a price) and then at best only offering a token event. Academic spam is a major issue and it can be hard for many to tell between the serious journals and conference organisers and the bogus ones. I'm not a very significant name in the academic community but even my in-box receives several academic spam mails per day offering me the chance to publish in some obscure journal or an appearance at a conference on a theme that I don't even work with. The extremely long list of so-called open access publishers in Beale's lists could be seen to discredit the open model but at the same time there are thousands of serious peer-reviewed open access publications. Whenever new models are tested there will be people who will try to exploit new freedoms and therefore it is vital to have watchdogs and whistle-blowers who can expose the less serious actors.

According to some reports, the site and its related Facebook group has been withdrawn due to pressure or threats, though there are no precise details on this. Anyone providing such a watchdog service risks the fury of those who are blacklisted and Beale has certainly had to put up with considerable opposition over the years. At the same time there is always the risk of accusing an innocent party. This is a major undertaking and is simply not sustainable if it is run by an individual, not matter how dedicated. A better solution would be an international organisation with high credibility to take over the role but more in terms of quality assurance rather than as whistle-blower. A colleague of mine suggested that the list could instead be one of approved journals and conferences and that a quality assurance framework and certification could make it clear which journals were serious and which were not. We need to build on and promote internationally recognised quality labels for open access publications to make it easier to spot the fraudsters.

Not surprisingly Beale's list has now been republished on a number of sites but such measures are only a temporary solution. The list must be continually updated and reviewed and it is also essential that those on the list are given a fair chance to improve and be taken off the list. Jeremy Beale has done a great job over the years but one pioneer cannot keep such a service going. Which organisation can step up and take over?

A detailed chronicle of this story is given in this blog post, What Happened to Jeffrey Beall’s List of (Allegedly) Predatory Publishers?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Embracing imperfection


We learn by enlightened trial and error. In fact failure is essential for learning. We try something, it fails and so we try another strategy and this process is repeated until we feel we have acquired the desired skill. The assistance of someone else who has already mastered that skill can help us but we still need to make our own mistakes.

An article by Maha Bali in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pedagogy of Imperfection, argues that we should embrace imperfection in education and stop demanding perfection either in ourselves or in others. An imperfect lesson is not the result of not being prepared, it's because no matter how carefully you prepare, your students will react differently according to mood, time of day, external factors. You may have prepared meticulously but when you meet the class something distracts or disturbs you. Many teachers set themselves unrealistic targets because they adopt the traditional role of the infallible teacher. If you can't answer all the students' questions you haven't prepared well enough. Good teachers are not necessarily the best prepared but those with the ability to improvise and react to the mood of the students and are willing to allow the students room to find answers. If the teacher immediately answers a question then the students are denied valuable information retrieval skill development. They need to learn how to find reliable information rather than learning to become dependent on the knowledge of others.

Students need to feel that they are not expected to succeed first time. Learning is an iterative and collaborative process and both students and teachers should be able to admit their uncertainties and shortcomings.

Seeing other people make mistakes, laugh it off, and keep going helps to open doors for others to join in the experimentation. If there is no expectation of perfection, this gives a sense of permission to participate. A pedagogy of imperfection entails teachers and mentors sharing, expressing their own imperfection openly, in order to facilitate it for others.

The author advocates greater risk taking in teaching, especially when using technology. So often teachers get stressed when a tool or device does not work as expected. I often hear colleagues complain about a tool that didn't work perfectly first time and is then dismissed as useless. Expecting perfection can prevent us from ever experimenting and that means we never learn anything new. If something doesn't work, see if the students can help you or simply move on to plan B and try again another time (once you've investigated why plan A didn't work). Students also need to be encouraged to experiment with technology and not expect to succeed first time.

The need to be ‘right’ means they are overly conservative in what they do. Giving them explicit permission to play and explore helps to open up what they can do.

A positive learning environment is one where teachers and students alike are able to admit their limitations and focus on sharing their skills and knowledge. Aspiring to perfection is admirable but so is realising that you may never attain that level.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Online education still in the shadows

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
Almost every week I meet colleagues who are skeptical about online education. Online is often considered a poor and limited alternative to the "rich experience" of classroom teaching and many point to lower completion rates, lack of human contact and complicated technology as reasons. The facts, however, point in the opposite direction as an article in Inside Higher Ed discusses, Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online. The reluctance to get involved in online education is mostly due to low awareness of the issues involved, lack of practical experience as well as a lack of support and incentives within the institution.

Extensive research has shown that, when well designed, online courses can be as as effective or better than campus courses in terms of student results (see for example the review of research findings in The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature, Means et al, 2013). The key words are well designed and this must be the focus of all courses whether online of face to face. The poor reputation of online education stems from the large number of poorly designed and under-supported online courses that have been produced over the years, often by institutions who have not fully understood the principles and simply focused on content delivery and then left the students to self-study. Such courses have suffered further from the fact that many teachers are assigned to online teaching with little or no training or support and the results should hardly be surprising.

The case against online education is not, in fact, without merit. In the hands of underfunded and poorly managed public and private institutions, online learning often delivers mediocre education at best. If those failures represent the sum of online education, then faculty members who reject it have every reason not only to be suspicious of it but also to discredit it.

The most important barriers to mainstream acceptance of online education are based on attitudes and practice.
  • Those most opposed to online learning generally have little practical experience of the field and are unaware of the opportunities available in today's digital media.
  • Online teaching is seen as a threat to the traditional model, challenging the massive investments in campus facilities and weakening universities' control.
  • Online teaching has very low status in universities and getting too involved can even have a negative effect on career development.
  • Successful online learning demands a rethink of traditional classroom pedagogy. The concept of the teacher being in sole charge of a course behind closed doors is threatened when the course goes online. Online courses require teamwork (as all courses should).
Teaching online is indeed demanding and requires careful planning as well as close cooperation with support staff such as educational technologists and librarians. Many are wary of getting involved because it involves a time-consuming and demanding rethink of existing practices. Considering the pressure many teachers are under in today's cash-strapped institutions this wariness is fully understandable. A new online course needs to be designed from scratch rather than simply uploading campus material to an online platform. As the article points out:

Going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.

The move to online teaching involves a major effort but if that responsibility is shared by working in course design teams that effort is shared and the work can be a major learning experience for all. The main point here is that delivery form (on-site versus online) is not the real issue. Successful courses in any environment have exactly the same success factors. The best classroom teachers are generally also best in an online environment. Whatever the delivery form enthusiasm, empathy, a genuine interest in students and good planning are absolutely crucial to student engagement and success. I wish we could soon stop comparing delivery forms and focus on what makes a course successful, namely professional course design, clearly stated pre-course information and requirements, creating a sense of community, teacher engagement, a supportive environment, formative assessment, frequent feedback and meaningful examination methods.

Whatever the delivery form, on-site, online or a blended format, the success factors are the same.

In the long run, neither the guardians of the campus nor the champions of the digital revolution will claim victory. Already, the educational battleground is populated by faculty members who accept that neither physical nor virtual education will triumph but rather the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Recycling webinars 2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how we could recycle webinar recordings and use them for other purposes (Recycling webinars). Not long after that post was published I got an e-mail from a colleague at Karolinska Institute, one of Sweden's leading medical universities, with a film they had made to help teachers think about webinar methodology. The film reuses a webinar I had helped to produce as part of their EdX MOOC, Introduction to urology, in the autumn of 2015. The cooperation was part of a Nordic project on making more effective webinars (see the project site Effective webinars for lots of articles, toolkit and ideas) and the idea of running a webinar as part of a MOOC was one of our most challenging activities.

Karolinska Institute have now used excerpts from the webinar to demonstrate how you can make your webinars more interactive, using different layouts, polls, chat and presenters-only area as well as tips on methodology. The original recording is probably of little interest today but parts of it will now live on in the form of a new product. An excellent example to recycling educational material


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Double-edged sword


The pen is indeed mightier than the sword but in today’s media landscape that pen has become a sword - a double-edged one serving both good and evil. The proliferation of extremist propaganda and fake news are making me reconsider my views on the social media I work with and have promoted so enthusiastically. The ability to build a global professional network, share ideas and learn from others has transformed my life and I spend a lot of my time helping others to use social media to create new opportunities. The net offers us platforms and tools for collaboration, creation, sharing and learning that were simply not possible 15 years ago. However we have rather naively assumed that these opportunities would be used to spread knowledge, learn from each other, build greater understanding, overcome barriers and foster a new spirit of enlightenment. We assume that human civilization has a positive linear development but right now we seem to have encountered some very worrying turbulence.

The tools that enable us to publish our ideas in a polished and professional format and make them accessible to a global audience can also be used to spread extremist ideologies, prejudiced propaganda, hatred and subversion. Lies can be presented as convincingly as the truth and fake news is as slick as the traditional news media. In your Facebook feed it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy and even checking sources can be difficult since many propaganda sites are disguised under banners like “independent” or “alternative” that can mean just about anything. Quite simply if an article confirms our own world view we will tend to believe it. Some people are good at creating fake stories that will provoke a certain volatile target group and they then sit back to enjoy seeing the chain reaction of anger that their fake article causes while at the same time earning considerable income from their on-site advertising as the click rate goes viral. There have always been extremists and conspiracy theorists but in the past they only reached a very limited audience, often using extremely poor quality pamphlets sent to like-minded people. Today a lone eccentric has a global voice and there are plenty free tools to help him/her create highly professional websites, podcasts, video channels, publications and social media presence. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort you can seem like a whole organisation rather than an individual.

Our basic trust in the development of democracy and increasing transparency has so far lead us to reap the benefits of the internet. We happily embrace the net giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft because although we are concerned about security we trust that these companies are basically benevolent and our governments will make sure that our data is not misused. But what happens as more countries turn to authoritarian populism with less transparency, less accountability and mass surveillance? The media that have helped us foster greater openness and global collaboration are also being used in the opposite direction. Repressive regimes all over the world are becoming very creative at manipulating social media to target dissidents.

How does education meet this harsh new reality where fiction and fact are so hard to tell apart and where monologue is replacing dialoge? Is it wise to continue advocating openness and instead teach how to cover our digital tracks? Are privacy and security the new key digital literacies? If there is a risk that the data will fall into the wrong hands we need to get smart and quickly. Learning analytics offers enormous benefits for education but in the wrong hands the prospects can be frightening. Schools and universities need to put source criticism at the forefront of the curriculum but even that is a double-edged sword. If you are convinced that there is an establishment conspiracy then your source criticism will treat all traditional news sources as suspect.

I have no answers to all this. It's rather complicated at the moment. Where is Gandalf when you need him?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Recycling webinars


I’ve been working with webinars for several years now and recordings of all of them are out there somewhere. Some of them have been watched by several hundred people whilst others sleep peacefully in digital obscurity. I think almost all webinars are recorded and made available for future reference but I wonder how much they are really used and whether we could do something to make them more useful, especially to those who did not attend the live event. The simplest form of reuse is to watch the recording with a colleague or small group, pausing to discuss the questions raised and making the webinar a springboard to further investigation. However large chunks of the webinar will be of little interest to those who didn’t participate in the actual event.

A webinar should be an interactive and engaging live event and therefore a straight recording will not capture that sense of participation. The audience for the recording will have different priorities to the live audience and will not be prepared to devote 45-60 minutes of their time to it. They are likely to be more interested in the most important content, preferably in a digested format. If we can invest time in editing and repackaging the webinar recording I believe that a snappy 10 minute summary with the most important issues, good ideas, quotes and links to more information provides a much more useful product than the standard one hour recording. The material could be enhanced with extra material such as a context-setting introduction, extra slides and maybe even background music (when there is only text on screen). In addition the new video can be tagged, subtitled (original language or translated or both) and indexed making the film more accessible and helping users to go straight to the point they’re most interested in. The new version should also allow educators to easily add subtitles in other languages and you could even consider adding a text manuscript for students with hearing difficulties.

Edited and repurposed webinars could also be used as input to new discussions as part of a flipped classroom approach. Let students watch the video as preparation for a classroom or online discussion. The new video could provide the basis of a short learning module using a tool like TEDEd that allows you to add quizzes, provide further information and links to more depth and even access to a discussion forum.

Sustainable webinars!

Thanks to my colleagues Francisca and David for extra inspiration here.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

The choreography of lectures


Despite all the studies and articles about the inefficiency of lecturing we seem to be addicted to the habit. I freely admit that I don't always practice what I preach but the format and location of most conferences make the traditional lecture almost unavoidable. It's rather amusing how many conferences I've attended on subjects like innovative pedagogy or future learning spaces that are based almost exclusively around lectures and the dreaded panel debates. Indeed I've listened to extremely boring lectures about innovative pedagogy.

So if we have to continue giving presentations, how can we lighten them up just a bit? The crucial success factors are of course enthusiasm for your subject and the ability to show an interest in the audience (eye contact, smiles, rhetorical questions etc). Talk to the audience, not at them. However probably most discussed feature of presentations is the question of whether or not to use slideshows. I'm always very wary of speakers who go "unplugged" and present without visual aids. Although there are a few genuine orators who can keep an audience's attention simply by the power of their narrative, the vast majority who try this tactic fail. Without the visual support the presentation becomes aimless and there are seldom any clues on how long it is going to last, what the objectives are or what the common theme is. It's all too easy to lose your audience..

I think we need to consider the choreography of a presentation. Even if it is largely a monologue it can vary in pace, deliver styles and types of interaction. Whether it's PowerPoint or Prezi doesn't really matter much in my opinion but the important factor is how they support your message. Far too many speakers still overload their slides with far too much text in an honest desire to provide as much information/value as possible but forgetting that there is a limit to how much an audience can absorb. Cognitive overload is a common problem and can be resolved by not talking when people need to read and not showing text when people are expected to listen. Use the slides to reinforce the structure of your presentation through keywords and images and provide the details orally. If you do have important information on a slide why not pause to let everyone read it before providing the details? Ask the audience to discuss the issue in pairs for a minute or so or simply ask a question for short silent reflection.

An article in Inside Higher EdA 50% Content / Discussion Formula for Academic Presentations presents a possible solution to turning presentations into discussions; cutting the input quota of your presentation to 50% and using the rest of the time for discussion. Very seldom is there much time for discussion even if that is what we value most at a conference.

Certainly, this 50 percent formula certainly is not the norm for academic presentations. Most academic presentations leave little time for discussion. Content takes up most of the time. Most often, the presenter is rushing to get through all the content that she has planned to present.  Sometimes discussion between the presenter and the audience does happen during the presentation, but that is rare. The larger the audience the less likely there is to be an integrated presentation / discussion format.

The author points out quite rightly that when there is time for questions from the audience it can often be counter-productive. Most questions are not even questions and some participants even take the opportunity to start their own alternative lecture. Question sessions generally fail because they can only accommodate a handful of participants at best, normally those who are most vocal. The majority are still silent.

One way around this could be to finish early and then pose 1-3 questions arising from your talk. Ask the audience to discuss in small groups and post their ideas and questions on a common document (like Google Docs) or workspace (like Padlet). For the last five minutes you can project the results on the screen, comment on some of them and promise to answer the rest later in the day. That way everyone gets to discuss your ideas, ask questions and provide new insights without the awkwardness of the usual plenum questions session.

By paying more attention to the choreography of a lecture we may be able to get more out of it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The truth is in the eye of the beholder

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
This week's US presidential election has shaken me to the core. The most powerful man in the world represents the complete opposite of everything I believe in. Living proof that bullying, disrespect, willful ignorance and arrogance get you all the way to the top and to the applause of millions. Many questions are buzzing in my head and no answers. How do we work against bullying in schools when bullying is clearly a winning formula? How will education be affected by world leaders openly showing disdain for scientific research and expert knowledge? Why study hard when a completely inexperienced person can become president? So I started wondering how we got to this stage. Maybe one factor is our love of a good story.

We read a lot about storytelling today, especially in marketing. It's not enough to have a good product, you need to have a good story that people can relate to. Sell the company's history, in glowing terms with high nostalgia factor, and tell stories that create a warm fuzzy feeling for the company/product. Stories have always been central to human culture and they have seldom had a close relationship with the truth. Every country has a host of national stories about heroes and struggles in the past, often highly elaborated and embroidered, with each generation adding new details to the potent cocktail of myth, half-truths and a modicum of reality. Even if historians reveal factual inaccuracies these stories are almost impossible to kill because the desire to believe them is greater than the need for truth. Their function is to hold a nation together. The truth is simply too complex and messy.

The stories behind Trump, Brexit and so on strike a chord with many, providing simple answers to complex and messy issues. The opposition campaigns simply failed to find a more compelling story and assumed that their own cause was so clear that it hardly needed explaining. We take democracy for granted at our peril.

How does all this affect education (turning to the focus of this blog)? I'm extremely concerned that we have an American president who openly dismisses scientific research and expert knowledge as part of an establishment conspiracy (eg climate change). Top priority in education must be to focus on media literacy and source criticism, teaching students to check their sources and become better at assessing the credibility of the information they find. But what if you don't trust the "establishment" sources and prefer to believe alternative or extremist sources? If you want to argue an extremist view it's easy today to find a wealth of sources that support your argument. You can use the principles of source criticism but arrive at very different conclusions. What do we do if large sections of society see the education sector as part of the "establishment" conspiracy? The danger is that the truth is now in the eye of the beholder.

What now? We have comfortably assumed that everyone shares our vision of a democratic, tolerant, inclusive society that respects the rights of all citizens. It's now painfully clear that this vision is not default and that many see benefits in an authoritarian society. We need to work much harder at justifying our vision and challenging less democratic forces. We ned to get our story right.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

There is no university of the future


Every time a new educational model is launched or an existing institution builds an innovative new facility we see headlines about whether this is the school/university of the future. This is another aspect of the tiresome either/or rhetoric that surrounds popular discussions of digitalisation; the new model will replace existing models. If we could just replace the definite article with the indefinite article and state simply that this is a school/university of the future the discussion might be more realistic. There is no one model for the future, there will be a wide range of different interpretations from traditional to innovative.

A recent example of this is an article from BBC newsUniversity opens without any teachers, about a university called 42 (devotees of A hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy will immediately understand) that has no teachers and where students collaborate to solve a wide range of problems and where achievement is measured through peer review and the practical implementation of the problems they solve. There are no tuition fees and accommodation is provided free thanks to the considerable backing of its billionaire owner. The venture started in France and has now opened a branch in the USA with the objective of training up to a thousand students in coding and software development. The students are highly motivated self-directed learners, able to search effectively for the information they need and exploit their networks to develop their skills.

The lack of teachers is indeed a radical solution and the headlines that this initiative has prompted fuels many people's insecurity about technology as a threat to jobs and traditional institutions. The point is that this is simply one of many models being tested today as we experiment with new ways of offering education. Indeed this one is a highly specialised model that the founders admit is only suitable for a certain target group.

Britanny Bir admits 42's methods do not suit all students. During the month-long selection period, some applicants fell out because of the stresses of working closely together. It is easy to imagine reacting badly to a poor mark if it was given by the student in the desk next to you.

"It suits individuals who are very disciplined and self-motivated, and who are not scared by having the freedom to work at their own pace," she says.

42 isn't the university of the future but it does demonstrate a trend that is already evident in universities; promoting active learning through real project work, collaboration and peer assessment. This will suit many learners who feel stifled by traditional teaching methods and want to focus on teamwork, problem-solving and practical application of skills from the very start. Another point is that 42 isn't actually a university in the formal sense of the term. They aren't providing credentials that can be compared to university degrees and should not be directly compared. There are many other examples of new educational models using traditional vocabulary like university, college or academy (Peer2peer university, Khan Academy, Udacity's nanodegrees etc) and being dragged into comparisons with the traditional system. Maybe they should use new terminology to show that they are offering new paths to learning and new forms of credentials that are not comparable to degrees.

What we are seeing today is experimentation with new models of education and the establishment of a new ecosystem where traditional degrees will still have great relevance but new alternatives will be available. If the new credentials are verifiable and trustworthy and employers accept them then they will become hard currency. They aren't the same as a university degree but they widen the credential spectrum.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Silence at last!

I've written several times about how hard it is today to experience silence, especially in public places. We're constantly bombarded by music, advertising, traffic and all the bleeps and assorted sound effects from our mobile devices. Now I've discovered a possible refuge from all this noise, a potentially revolutionary gadget called Muzo.

Muzo is a small device that you place on a table or window and incredibly it tones down all the background noise, creating an oasis of peace for you to work, relax or sleep in. I find it hard to believe that your oasis will be completely silent but if they can relegate that irritating music playing in the cafe you are sitting in then I'll be buying one very soon. Another feature is that you can select your own ambient background music or sound effects to create a more peaceful environment for sleep or meditation. So if you want to sleep you just select the sounds of a summer's evening beside a river with the optional crackling of a campfire. In addition Muzo can create a sound bubble so that you can have an intimate conversation in a restaurant without anyone else being able to overhear. The product certainly seems to have struck a chord with many people since the crowdfunding campaign to finance the product raised more than four times the money asked for.

I suspect that Muzo will be able to tone down a lot of background noise but there will of course be some leakage. I hope it will be at least possible to hear a fire alarm. But the ability to create a quiet oasis around me when I want to concentrate is a dream come true. The irony in all this is that almost noone actually wants the background noise that Muzo will help us escape from. If more cafes and public places would simply turn off the pointless background music (in some cases foreground music) we could have natural peace and quiet.

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.