Sunday, April 28, 2013

Just because you can

OK Go - Singing Over the Crowd by Cycrolu, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Cycrolu

When I went on holiday 15 years ago or more I thought a couple of 36 photo film rolls were easily enough to capture those important moments. The cost of developing those photos meant that every camera click was carefully considered. Today I take hundreds of photos, not because I have to but mostly because I can. I delete the worst ones but I keep about 90% of them even if I know that very few people in the world, if any, are likely to want to see them. We all sit on vast collections of photos and video footage that are hardly ever viewed. Since digital storage is free or inexpensive it's easy to save everything, just in case.

Maybe we spend so much time filming and taking photos that we actually forget to simply enjoy the real experience. Whenever you go to a major tourist attraction the place is swarming with people all taking thousands of very similar photos of the same place, from much the same angles. I'm in there with the best of them but I sometimes wonder why. I suppose it's the need to prove that you were actually there and in recent years to prove that to all your friends on Facebook. I do often enjoy seeing friends' photos on Facebook, especially if they've been somewhere interesting. Sharing memories and experiences is what drives social media and fulfills the need to create bonds and common reference points. However maybe we have to step back now and then and wonder if we really need to take all these photos and films and whether we are sometimes more focused on that than actually enjoying the experience.

An article on CNN, At concerts, put that cell phone down, complains of the forest of mobiles held up at concerts with everyone taking blurred photos and recording poor quality films of the performance. YouTube is full of dreadful concert video clips that no one ever watches and the author wonders why we do it.

"It's difficult to explain just why we do it -- why having a very basic camera in our pocket compels us to shoot photos and videos of live music that, deep down, we know we'll never look at.
Part of it might be the delusional notion of preserving a memory, but it's probably more about showing everyone in social media that you're actually out of your house doing something culturally important. As opposed to staying in and slathering your body with ranch dressing."

The article cites a recent example of the rock group the Yeah Yeah Yeahs who put up signs at a recent concert appealing to fans to keep their mobiles out of sight. Let the people behind you see the show. The chances of you getting any decent footage are slim and it's simply an unnecessary irritant.

"Of course, if you have a quality camera and can get up close, there's definitely an art in concert photography. And people certainly appreciate that.
But for everyone else, let's all agree to give it a rest. Do it for you. Just experience the music, take it in, and we'll talk about our favorite moments over late-night food."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Change the focus

When I was a student just about everything I wrote was for a very exclusive audience; generally one person, a teacher or examiner. No-one else would ever read it. I wrote purely to be assessed and it wasn't a very stimulating, fulfilling or realistic process. That's why today's students are writing assignments that are published publicly on the net or made available on the university's open access archive. When you know your work will be available to all you automatically raise your game, suddenly the assignment is real and not a test. Shift the focus and change the view.

A similar change of focus can inject much needed energy to the tired ritual of course evaluations. A short article by Brian CroxallImprove your Course Evaluations by having your Class Write Letters to Future Students (Chronicle of Higher Education), describes how he choose a new angle for the end-of-course evaluation. Instead of handing out the standard evaluation form he asked the students to write a letter to next year's students giving them advice and tips about the course and the teaching. By changing the focus from writing to a faceless administrator to a group of fellow students the task suddenly became meaningful and the feedback was much more enlightening. The quantity and quality of the feedback was improved.

"... I found that the students wrote, on average, far more on these evaluations than they have on past ones that I have provided. And in writing something directed at fellow students rather than me or some faceless, unknowable bureaucracy, I’d say that the students were much more candid. This means that they are more direct in talking about my strengths and weaknesses. And while it’s nice to hear the former, it’s the latter that will actually help me do a better job the next time around."

A slight change of focus can often make a big difference.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Test for success?

Day 23 - Exam hall by jackhynes, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by jackhynes

There are many paradoxes in education today. For example, on the one hand there is an increased focus on standardised testing and educational league tables that compare schools and universities based solely on test scores and on the other hand the need to foster entrepreneurship and creativity in schools. There is considerable evidence that success in tests does not correspond to creativity and innovation. However, the more national authorities focus on success in, for example, PISA the more teachers will need to teach the test and that in turn leads to students focusing not on learning but on cramming facts to pass the tests.

There is of course intense competition between nations as markets become more global and every country tries to stay ahead of the competition by being more innovative. But maybe standardised testing in schools and colleges is counter-productive. This is the essence of an article by Katrina Schwartz, In an Era of Global Competition, What Exactly Are We Testing For? which discusses the research Yong Zhao, professor of education at University of Oregon. Zhao has compared students from countries with high test scores in mathematics, like Korea and Japan, with countries with lower average scores and discovered a negative correlation between high math scores and confidence. The "successful" students are not particularly interested in the subject they are supposedly excellent at and have low confidence in their ability. They have focused on memorising the facts needed to pass the test rather than applying them and thinking creatively.  In schools where students can choose more freely and have more control over what they learn and how they learn there is greater commitment and higher levels of creativity, even if they may not perform so well in standardised tests.

What is the focus for educational institutions then? Should education start with a curriculum of facts that every student must know or does it focus on the individual and build on her/him? It would seem to be a choice between conformity and creativity. We need to learn how to learn rather than learn to pass tests.

“The new education needs to start with the child. Not with the prescribed content,” Zhao said. “We start with individual differences; we start with their cultural strengths.” Beginning with the individual and building upwards from there allows each person to become uniquely great at something. And when students are passionate about anything, they can then be creative and entrepreneurial. For Zhao, the new model has to be about creating a new middle class based on creativity.

To do that, he suggests giving students more autonomy over their learning and emphasizing the importance of making authentic products that solve problems. He also emphasizes a global learning community that can collaborate to fill the gaps that each country, school or teacher experiences.

The problem is that tests focus on facts and acquired knowledge but do not test the skills that today's employers value most: creativity, entrepreneurship and collaboration. If we really want to promote these skills we need to find new methods of assessing real skills and practical competence and let students follow their natural talents and learn in the manner that suits them best.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Buzzword pruning

secateurs by C.K.H., on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by C.K.H.

A lot of buzzwords have really passed their sell-by dates and maybe its time to bid them a fond farewell. We've been sticking 2.0 on to lots of words for at least 10 years and it simply isn't cool anymore. Cyber- is another term that has lost its sting. Talking to friends on Skype or Facebook is not cyberspace, I'm simply talking to friends. I also feel that we should tone down the e- in front of learning since it's about time we saw the e- as default and that education should of course make use of the technology and communication opportunities that are used in society in general.

A blog post by Richard Byrne, 21 Reasons to Stop Saying "21st Century Teacher" makes a good case for dumping another overused term. Since we are now 13 years into the 21st century it doesn't sound impressive anymore and the skills and teaching we are referring to are firmly rooted in the present decade and cannot be seen as typical of an entire century. We still have 87 years left of this century and a lot will happen in that period. Would we describe skills or technologies from 1913 as typical of the 20th century?

The post is also poking fun at all those list articles with titles like 5/10/20/21/30 awesome uses of the latest technology. Let's check our language use from time to time and do a bit of buzzword pruning.

Wait a minute ... isn't buzzword a buzzword?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Who are MOOCs really for?

CC BY-NC-ND Some rights reserved by catspyjamasnz
I've written before about the irrelevance of looking deeply into completion rates of MOOCs. Due to the fact that MOOCs are free and (relatively) open they should not be compared to regular university courses. The typical completion rates of around 10% obviously alarm those who view MOOCs as alternatives to for-credit courses. However, given the fact that such a completion rate for a course with 50,000 students would still give more successful students than several years of campus courses, they maybe don't do so badly after all. What so many articles seem to miss is the fact that the target group for MOOCs is not traditional university students at all. I would like to see some studies on the demography of MOOCs to see who's really using them and I suspect that the traditional student group of 19-25 year olds is not as well represented as you might expect. MOOCs do not really compete with higher education, they make higher education material accessible to people who would never otherwise have access to it.

This is the theme of an excellent article by Oscar Becerra, The One Laptop Per Child Correlation With Massive Open Online Courses. He starts by stating that "MOOC Target Audience are Currently “Non-consumers” of Education", meaning that MOOCs should be seen as an exciting extension of higher education allowing millions of people to explore new fields that were previously closed off to them. Whether these people complete their courses or not is not really very interesting, it's what they feel they have learnt from the experience.

"What we need to bear in mind is that the MOOCs are trying to make better quality education available to a great mass of people who are currently “non-consumers” of education and such quality is currently superior by far to whatever they may be getting right now. The MOOCs are not aimed to people who are willing to cheat but to those willing to learn ...
... we may say the MOOCs and online education offerings available today are “good enough educational offerings” helping ordinary people who are willing to learn to reach goals that had been out of their possibilities so far."

MOOCs are not regular university courses and we shouldn't compare the two. You do not get the same levels of tuition and guidance and you need to be highly self-sufficient and digitally literate to be able to benefit from them. But you can learn a lot from them if you apply yourself and that in itself is a justification. At the moment I suspect the majority of MOOC students are graduates and professionals who are trying out the new arena out of curiosity. People like myself basically. We are often only interested in looking at methods and content and seldom stay for the whole course (I'm guilty as charged here). This group is highly self-sufficient and many are educators themselves with little interest in credits even if they were available. I'd be interested in seeing how the demographics change as the hype dies down. I suspect that the curious academic category will fall off and the group of new learners, people outside higher education, will increase. They are the real target group of MOOCs but they are not in focus at present due to the vast numbers of "curious academics" so maybe we should reserve our judgement on the MOOC phenomenon till the dust settles.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The music of teaching

Teachers and students have a vast range of resources to use: books, audio recordings, films, tests, simulations, games, photos, diagrams etc. The teacher's role is putting selected resources into context and finding methods to help students to reflect on and develop that input. However, although we have documented and stored so much content we have not succeeded in documenting or recording actual teaching methods in a standard format.

Teaching resembles in some ways the performance of music. You have lots of instruments that can be used and integrated in complex or simple structures and there are a wide range of styles to choose between. Courses can be orchestrated and can involve soloists as well as different groups of musicians or combinations of instruments. The difference is that music has a standard form of notation (at least western music) and is therefore accessible through the centuries. Teaching on the other hand has no form of notation, no way of expressing how a lesson or course is orchestrated, so that other teachers can draw on previous practice. Teachers often have to work in their own silo reinventing the wheel rather than being able to draw on other's experience.

We've created open educational resources (OER) but the big question is how to fit them all together. Maybe we need to develop a language for open lesson plans with a standard notation form that all teachers understand and can interpret. A choreography for teaching, Not to slavishly follow but for each teacher and class to interpret and adapt.Teaching is becoming increasingly complex today and it feels like time to develop methods to transfer teaching practice.

This is where Learning Design comes in. I've just read an interesting paper called the Larnaca declaration on learning design that describes various attempts at devising a notation for teaching (download the paper from the website). One such attempt is called LAMS Learning Design system (see example below). The lesson plan is represented by a diagram with a number of linked icons. Each icon tells what type of activity is proposed and each icon is linked to further embedded information on the details of the activity and even xml-code for educational technologists to be able to implement this activity in say a learning management system. The example below shows the organization of a roleplay and has a linear format but other learning designs could have more complex structures.

CC BY-NC-SA James Dalziel at

The article contains several other attempts to find a graphical means of describing the structure of a lesson and the potential for this is enormous. Not simply to describe how a one teacher has devised an effective method for helping students to grasp a particular concept but that now other teachers can easily interpret this plan and use it themselves. Just as a piece of music can be played in a variety of styles and interpretations so can a learning design be interpreted in various ways, depending on the teacher and the class context. Some forms of music, like jazz, depend greatly on improvisation whereas classical music stays more true to the written score. The same may be true for teaching using learning design. The key is recording and transferring good practice. If we can also find ways of linking to relevant open resources we can create complete lesson plans.

Time for open learning design to build on open educational resources.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Can you own a digital purchase?

IMG_4227 by Jemimus, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Jemimus

If I buy a book, a music CD or a DVD movie I own it and when I get tired of it I am free to sell it to someone else. This principle of ownership seems simple enough but in the digital world it suddenly ceases to apply. An article by Dan Gillmor in the Guardian, In our digital world you don't own stuff, you just license it, describes a recent American court ruling against a start-up, ReDigi, who proposed to start a market for people to resell digital music.

"Had the users of the startup, ReDigi, been selling used CDs via any number of online stores, there would have been no issue. But the music in this case was stored in computer files, so the doctrine of "first sale" – your right to resell what you've bought – didn't apply.

ReDigi tried hard to live up to the spirit of copyright law. It created a system where the uploader of a "purchased" iTunes song would lose access to the music after the file was transferred to the new "buyer's" computer. Yeah, right, said the record company and the judge – there's no way to ensure that the "seller" wasn't keeping the song anyway."

The same problem applies to e-books, e-magazines and all types of digital content. Because it's so easy to make perfect digital copies the companies argue that you can't really own digital content, simply the right to access it yourself and that right is not transferable. Many libraries have encountered difficulties in lending e-books and often have to pay considerable sums to be able to lend such content.

June Breivik points out another absurdity with digital content in a post about how e-books are often much more expensive than the printed equivalent (blog post in Norwegian).

Is the high price some kind of compensation for the fact that once bought the content may be copied? The ruling against ReDigi would suggest that we need to rethink our principle of ownership when it comes to digital products and that you merely pay for the right to borrow rather than own. Many digital content services are subscription based and if you stop paying the subscription your content is no longer available.

But if I pay money for something that I don't really own and do not have the right to resell, the price for this service should logically be much lower than the purchase of the physical equivalent which include reselling rights? It seems that the content companies are still uncomfortable with digital formats and are applying an analogue business model that doesn't quite fit. I don't have the answer but new models are needed to avoid absurd examples like the above.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The future of education is diversity

learn by Mark Brannan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Mark Brannan

There are a lot of articles about the future of education/schools/universities full of claims and counter-claims about exactly which technology or method will prevail. I think the answer is that education and learning will take place in a wide variety of settings from traditional classrooms to virtual worlds and in many modes from independent self-study to small collaborative projects to massive online courses. In the past education was more limited to face-to-face meetings at set times or to correspondence courses with long response times. Today there are so many options available to satisfy all preferences. MOOCs are not going to replace regular university courses, they simply add new options and new arenas for learning for those who learn well in that type of setting.

There are plenty innovative platforms for learning. One such that has just caught my attention is the London based site The Amazings. The idea here is that people with a passion for a practical skill can offer classes to anyone in the area via the site. The focus is on older people (over 50) being able to offer their knowledge and skills to the community and earn money for it. These classes, workshops and courses range from £15 to £140 and are all face to face sessions in the London area though they plan to expand to other cities as demand increases. The teachers are not necessarily qualified but are all enthusiasts who want to share their knowledge. Classes take place in all sorts of places but never in a classroom. Their tone is refreshingly honest and hype-free:

"Who are the classes for?
Anyone who wants to learn but hates formality. We want to make learning more fun, more friendly, more social, and more personal. If you want certificates or diplomas, keep on walking. If you're interested in learning for its own sake, we've probably got a class for you."

Read more about the Amazings in an article in the IndependentMeet the Amazings! Keeping knowledge alive. Here's a short video that presents one of the courses, how to play steel drums:

At present there are very few online courses in the Amazings but a similar service that has been around a while now, Skillshare, offers a wide range of online informal courses as well as face-to-face sessions in various cities (mostly in the USA).

People helping other people to learn, online, in person, anywhere, any time. If you can't meet physically you meet online. It's all about people communicating, helping, learning. There is no best method, no killer app, no disruption. It's about diversity, choice and flexibility.