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 need 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.