Sunday, March 30, 2014

The red pen

Education is full of stereotyped symbols that are hard to erase. No matter how collaborative, open and innovative we make education, the standard metaphors in the media and everyday speech are still the classroom, the desk, the blackboard, chalk, homework and the exam hall. One particularly enduring symbol is the dreaded red pen. This simple writing tool has become forever type-cast as the villain, an instrument of criticism and correction and is seldom used for anything else. We can happily write in all other colours but the red pen seems forever damned.

This theme is discussed in a post (in Norwegian but try with Google translate and you'll get the gist) by a Norwegian colleague of mine, Torhild Slåtto . Comments written in red on a student's assignment (either by pen or red text in a digital document) are said to have such a demotivating effect that most teachers prefer to comment in pretty well any colour other than red. She gives an example of a student who got a high grade for an assignment but couldn't understand why since there were so many red comments on it. The comments could well have been very positive and constructive but the colour clouded that fact and the student interpreted the comments as negative. If the comments had been in blue or green the effect would've been completely different.

There are many other examples of educational stereotypes and preconceptions that can lead to misunderstanding. The traditional role of the teacher as arbitrator and corrector lies so deep that students often misinterpret efforts to encourage collaborative learning, teamwork and peer assessment as "lazy" teaching. If you expect everything to be teacher-centred then you may view a student-centred strategy as the teacher not doing her/his job. This can result in negative course evaluations, not because of bad teaching but due to very different preconceptions of the teacher's role. In such cases the student may even be disappointed that no red ink was used; "the teacher didn't even correct me."

We need to unlearn old truths before we can move on.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Is a MOOC really a course?

Project365-Day34 by farouq_taj, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by farouq_taj

It is often said that in a MOOC every letter is negotiable. Much has been written about the many interpretations of open but maybe the most problematic is the final letter - C for course. Are MOOCs really courses? Many of the mainstream ones are definitely built like courses with a clear linear structure but the original connectivist model is more fluid. Whatever the intention of the MOOC-designers, the problem is whether the learners see the MOOC as a coherent course that must be followed from units 1 to 10 or whether they see it as content and discussions to dip into and investigate when their curiosity is awakened. Maybe the main reason for the notoriously low completion rates of MOOCs is the fact that most learners do not see them as courses to be followed from A to Z.

Stephen Downes hits the nail on the head in a new post about this issue, Like reading a newspaper. If we compare a regular course to a book which must be read from cover to cover then a MOOC is more like a newspaper that you read very selectively. A course, like a book, is meant to be followed from start to finish and abandoning it midway is seen as a failure to engage. Downes suggests that the connectivist MOOCs he's associated with offer learners a range of learning paths and a flexibility in approach that is unlike a regular course.

But our MOOCs are not designed like that. Though they have a beginning and an end and a range of topics in between, they're not designed to be consumed in a linear fashion the way a book is. Rather, they're much more like a magazine or a newspaper (or an atlas or a city map or a phone book). The idea is that there's probably more content than you want, and that you're supposed to pick and choose from the items, selecting those that are useful and relevant to your present purpose.

A newspaper is not a failure if noone reads it cover to cover just as a buffet is not a failure if we don't eat every dish. I suspect that even on the more linear and traditional xMOOCs of Coursera, edX and others, many learners treat them as newspapers/buffets rather than as a coherent course that must be followed. They dip in and investigate the parts that seem interesting and their disappearance should not be confused with dropping out of a formal university course. The completion rate comparison is comparing apples with pears basically.

Yet another argument for scrapping the term MOOC. How about Massively varying in size, open depending on your interpretation of the term, online (that one's OK), learning arena that may or may not resemble a course ...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

From owning to sharing

Sharing Is Caring - Fotosöndag by Niklas Wikström, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by Niklas Wikström

If a teacher, whose lectures and other course material are featured on a MOOC, moves to another employer, who owns that content? That's the question posed in an Inside Higher Ed article last week, When MOOC Profs Move. Most universities accept that if a faculty member leaves then they take their material with them however there are also rules in place allowing universities to retain rights to material that they have made significant investments in, such as a major MOOC. One case is described of a teacher, Cathy Davidson, from Duke University moving elsewhere and keeping the right to use her MOOC material in her new post.

“I own my own course content,” Davidson said in an email. “No one at Duke (or anywhere) can teach with my videos without my permission. I can reuse my videos and course materials at CUNY, but need to acknowledge that they were produced at Duke.”

The article looks at several cases that were solved amicably but there is always the risk of less easily resolved conflicts of interest. Interpretations of copyright vary from country to country making harmonisation difficult within multinational MOOC consortia like Coursera or edX. The university can be correct to keep the rights to material developed with internal funding and the teacher can also be right to retain control of their own material. However it is important to remember that digital learning resources are seldom the product of one teacher. Most video productions involve a team with other teachers, students, educational technologist, media production specialist, librarian and maybe web designer adding their expertise to the mix. It's simply not the teacher's sole property any more though the discussion all to often focuses on the teacher as copyright holder. The teacher may want to take their recorded lectures to a new university but the production team must also be involved in the discussion.

If the university is bold enough to adopt Creative Commons as a basis for resolving rights issues then the situation becomes immediately more flexible and to everyone's advantage. If the resource is shared under a CC license then the university retains the right to use it in the future, duly acknowledging the author(s), and the teacher can take the material with them. The resource is available to all as long as they attribute correctly, and the potential for disputes described in the article evaporates. Switch the focus from owning to sharing.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Only connect ...

When do we learn? I suspect that despite the best efforts of our teachers and schools we don't usually learn when and where we should. Of course a well-designed course can lead you towards deeper insights, help you form your ideas and practice the concepts but that essential insight may not come as hoped. Learning comes when we least expect it. Suddenly you make that connection and it all makes sense; lying awake in bed, sitting on a train or out jogging. For many of us education can have a delayed reaction and it can take months or even years before you actually realise that you have learned something.

Today education is carefully planned with learning outcomes, assessment, tests and planned progression. We plan courses on the assumption that students learn together and develop at the same pace: after xx weeks you will be able to do X, Y and Z. Isn't that a rather optimistic notion given the widely differing aptitudes, levels of commitment, distraction levels and ambitions among the learners. Some will get it almost immediately whereas others will struggle for ages and may never really "get it". Some will pass their exams and graduate without fully learning. I must confess to falling into that category as a student. I studied hard and passed the exams but looking back I never really understood until years later. I saw my studies as work that had to be done so I concentrated on ticking the boxes as I'm sure millions still do today.

You can't learn according to plan and you can't plan that a diverse group of people learn the same things at the same time. No matter how well educators design courses the outcomes can vary widely. It may seem that all students have fulfilled the course objectives but each one will have done so in their own way and with a wide variety of interpretations. We can learn the facts and apply the theory as the course demands but the real understanding may not be there. Real learning happens when the conditions are right and we can't control this. Serendipitous learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

MOOC Book Project

If you're going to write a book about MOOCs then the obvious method to use is to crowdsource it, in other words ask the world to help you. That's what the MOOC Book Project is all about. They propose an outline for the book chapters and invite interested authors to submit an abstract by the end of March. From those abstracts the editors, Dr. Joseph Rene Corbeil (Associate Professor, University of Texas at Brownsville), Dr. Maria Elena Corbeil (Associate Professor, University of Texas at Brownsville) and Dr. Badrul H. Khan (Honorary Distinguished Professor of E-Learning, Egyptian E-Learning University) will then select the best prospects and invite them to submit full chapters by the end of June. The chapters will be then subject to a double blind peer review as in most scientific journals. If all goes to plan the book should be out by mid-2015.

The book will examine MOOCs with case studies investigating the following eight dimensions:

  • Pedagogical - teaching and learning in a MOOC.
  • Technological - infrastructure, scalability etc.
  • Interface design - look and feel of the platform.
  • Evaluation - assessment methods etc.
  • Management - maintenance and distribution.
  • Resource support - online support and resources.
  • Ethical considerations - diversity, accessibility.
  • Institutional - administration, academic affairs.

This book will focus on cases describing issues or challenges experienced by IT and e-learning practitioners, faculty, or students during the design, development and implementation of, or participation in, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Using Khan’s eight-dimensional E-Learning Framework, authors are invited to submit chapter proposals for cases addressing one (or more) dimensions of the framework. Through analysis, reflection, and discussion of illustrative MOOC cases, missteps in the design and delivery of future MOOCs can be minimized or avoided.

This is an interesting venture and I look forward to following its progress.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Faster horses

A frequently voiced, and understandable, concern about the use of technology in education is that we should not let technology come before pedagogy. The fear is that we are more interested in promoting the use of certain tools and devices rather than how to use them pedagogically and indeed whether they enhance or detract from the pedagogy. But is the issue so simple and should pedagogy always come first? A short but intriguing post by José Picardo, The problem with pedagogy first, argues that the two must be fully integrated before we really see the benefits of technology in education. He quotes the famous line by Henry Ford when developing mass car production: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Today's educational technology is being used to produce faster horses rather than truly opening new horizons. Maybe when the technology is so embedded that it is hardly noticed things will really begin to move forward.

What actually makes sense is to embrace technology and explore how it can support teaching and learning. A school’s digital strategy must ensure that both technology and pedagogy go hand in hand if we are to avoid the faster horse scenario, where our vantage point only allows us a narrow field of view that cannot provide us with the insight and perspective that are required to make educational technology so mundane and so embedded that teachers can focus on the teaching, which is what every teacher in the world dearly wants to achieve.

There's nothing new in pedagogy being influenced by technology. Often it's a lack of technology that dictates such as not having electricity, computers, internet access and so on. It can also be limited by physical environment; a lecture hall with bolted down desks in rows definitely limits the teacher's pedagogy. Administration can also severely restrict pedagogy by creating timetables with 45 minute periods after which a bell rings and the class disappears. 

However today's technology is enabling us to escape many of the above restrictions and create stimulating physical and digital learning environments that were not possible before. By embracing technology we can put pedagogy first.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Science on auto-pilot

robot army by peyri, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by peyri

Fifty years ago each academic field would have a limited number of journals and an even more limited number of conferences and it was quite possible to keep abreast of what was happening. That is simply not possible today with an ever-increasing deluge of publications and conferences in even the most narrow and specialised of fields. With such volume it is inevitable that some events and publications will have serious quality issues. Many less serious journals seem to publish just about anything without any peer review and the same is true for some conferences where accepting all papers can mean that authors will pay to attend.

An amazing news post in Nature, Publishers withdraw more than 120 gibberish papers, reveals that publishers Springer and IEEE are removing more than 120 published papers after discovering that they were automatically generated by computer and were, in fact, complete nonsense. These papers are generated by software called SCIgen that was developed by students at MIT about 12 years ago to see if random generated articles could get accepted for academic conferences. The articles produced by SCIgen certainly look plausible at first glance and if that is all the conference or journal reviewers have done it's possible to accept them. However anyone who actually tries to read them will see the bluff pretty quickly - have a look at one and see for yourself. If you can't spot them yourself then there is even a program that will detect computer generated papers, SCIgen detection. Read more on this in an article in the Guardian,
How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia.

What's really interesting here is that although SCIgen was developed so long ago, nonsense articles are still finding their way into journals and conferences, to the amusement no doubt of those who submitted the articles and developed the software. In a way you could claim that they are doing an important job by revealing publications and conferences whose peer review of submissions either doesn't work or doesn't exist. These revelations will no doubt inspire some to take a serious look at their routines and some may hopefully be forced out of business.

Academics are under intense pressure to publish, conferences and journals want to turn their papers into profits, and universities want them published. "This ought to be a shock to people," Krohn said. "There's this whole academic underground where everyone seems to benefit, but they are wasting time and money and adding nothing to science. The institutions are being ripped off, because they pay publishers huge subscriptions for this stuff."
Guardian 27 Feb 2014, How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia