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.