Sunday, March 26, 2017

Strategies for digital reading

CC0 Public domain by Tranmautritam on Pexels
Many people are concerned about the effect digital devices are having on our reading ability, in particular our ability to read deeply and focus on longer and more complex texts. The most common issue is that when we read digital texts we are usually online and thus vulnerable to the sirens' call of social media. Digital reading has certainly helped to improve certain reading skills such as skimming, browsing and checking links and references but when you need to concentrate and read deeply then print has a clear advantage. Reading a text on an online device could be compared to reading a book in the living room where the rest of the family are watching TV, playing, chatting and generally trying to attract your attention. However if we eliminate the distractions is there any difference in reading a longer text in print or on a tablet or laptop?

We read both print and digital texts every day and I don't see that changing any time soon. Instead of arguing about which one is better we need to focus on developing students' reading skills in both environments, recognising that the digital environment is different and demands special attention. This issue is discussed in an excellent blog post by Michael Larkin, To Read Well on Screens, Change Your Mindset. There are a number of factors that affect how we read digital texts: type of device, online or offline, screen resolution and back-lighting as well as the type of text being read. This means it's hard to make direct comparisons between digital and print reading because it all depends on the digital context. However, the key to effective reading in any medium is your ability to minimise the number of distractions.

Teaching our students (and, again, ourselves) how to be better self-regulators is crucial to our success as screen readers—especially when we’re online.

Maybe we find it hard to concentrate on a digital text because we normally use the device for entertainment and social contacts. You associate your tablet with social media and expect to be pleasantly distracted almost constantly. Reading a scientific article on the same device, even if you close the wifi connection, is therefore a challenge because we've been programmed to expect distractions. We need to learn to become more conscious of our digital reading and develop strategies for tackling longer texts. This demands concentration and self-discipline.

Help students to cultivate a screen reading mindset that they’ve got to bring effort, and effort of particular types, to be able to read successfully on digital devices. Perhaps most prominent among these practices is that they need to reduce distractions as much as possible and resist the medium’s associations with speed, efficiency, TL;DR [Too Long Didn't Read], and entertainment.

Larkin recommends teachers to create digital reading activities that help students become more aware of their powers of concentration, or lack of them. They need to learn how to read from beginning to end and resist the temptation to skim and jump around in the text; in short, learn how to slow down. These self-awareness activities can of course also be applied to print reading since many people lack strategies for reading any type of longer and more complex text.

However, we also need to bear in mind all the advantages the digital text has over its print counterpart, in particular the support available to people with reading difficulties and sight impairment. Digital texts can be magnified, vocabulary can be checked and translated and there are many text to voice applications. Digital texts are accessible in a way that print can never be but this massive advantage is seldom raised in the media stories of the dangers of digital reading.

An article on Mind/ShiftStrategies to Help Students ‘Go Deep’ When Reading Digitally, offers practical teaching strategies for helping students read digital texts more deeply. The article highlights the use of Google Drive to teach students how to take notes, highlight and summarize. A longer text can easily be copied to a Google document and then the students work in pairs of groups to highlight important points in the text, summarize sections, identify new vocabulary and comment on colleagues' notes. In this way they collaborate in making sense of a complex text and develop strategies for their own deeper reading.

Reading digital texts is a skill we all need to learn but the most important strategy for effective reading in any environment is eliminating the potential distractions. Just as we try to find a quiet room to read a printed novel we also need to find a quiet digital space to read. Once the distractions are minimised it's just you and the text and I'm not sure there is such a great difference then between print and digital, even if we have our own personal preferences.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Creating integrated online and on-site workspaces

By Deskmag - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Just as the borderline between classroom and online learning has become blurred so has the concept of the workplace. Technology enables many of us to work effectively from just about anywhere with decent internet access and you would think that the traditional office and the daily ritual of commuting would be on the way out. There's little sign of that but the concept needs to be redesigned.

At many universities faculty corridors are becoming rather lonely and quiet as more and more staff chose to work from home or elsewhere according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Our Hallways Are Too Quiet. One major reason for this trend is the fact that you can often work more effectively away from the office.

A big reason for decreased faculty presence in their campus offices is technology. Networked computers that allow one to write anywhere also allow us to have conversations with students and colleagues that used to take place in person. Creating new course materials and ordering books is easily done online. Cloud software has made pretty much all our work processes easily done from home, a vacation cabin, a foreign conference hotel. For many scholars, this has been a very liberating occurrence, giving them wondrous flexibility.

The growth of working in national and international projects where physical meetings are a luxury and most meetings are online means that for many people (including myself) the office has become a digital rather than a physical space. I work in many different organisations and networks and a day at the office often consists of five or six online meetings, one after the other, and my only contact with my colleagues in the building are at coffee and lunch breaks. As virtual organisations grow then the importance of the physical office space will logically decrease but this change was forecast 20 years ago and it hasn't really happened. Distance working and virtual teams sound great but many organisations are unwilling to trust their staff to work from home and in many cases office presence is demanded even if it is often not necessary. Somehow the ritual of going to the office is a hard one to break. It's partly about trust and a fear of losing control but it's also about retaining a sense of community and identity. An organisation based on solitary home workers will not generate much loyalty or sense of belonging. We need to gather somewhere to develop working relationships.

There's a similar situation when it comes to students on campus. For many it is perfectly possible to study and collaborate with colleagues from home and if lectures are recorded why come to campus at all if you don't happen to live there? Many were worried about this when more and more content went online and with today's collaborative tools you can also have close face-to-face online contact with tutors and study groups. The role of the campus is therefore being revised from being a place where you were a consumer of content in lecture halls to a place where you actively discuss, experiment and produce in flexible learning spaces. Classroom time needs to be made be unmissable, the time when you can solve problems, discuss issues in depth and carry out practical lab work that cannot be simulated. You simply have to be there.

So back to the office. The online element will continue to develop and we can't expect everyone to be at their desks from nine to five. We need to create workplaces that are worth going to but where the online element is nevertheless essential. Both the physical and the digital spaces need to be integrated. Many workplaces have become creative and flexible environments with space for teamwork, online collaboration and silent concentration but sometimes the focus is so much on the on-site work that the online element is only included in some activities rather than being ubiquitous. In the academic world however both teaching and research have traditionally been solitary activities. I suspect that this, rather than technology, is the main reason for the empty corridors mentioned in the article. Technology has simply made it easier to stay away but the tendency has always been there as long as the focus has been on the individual.

The key is more collaboration and teamwork. If course development is a team activity then the workplace needs to be designed to facilitate this. The same goes for research teams. Maybe we also need to create spaces where staff and students can mix and work together. However it's not just about the physical space. Most teams and projects will always have colleagues who are elsewhere and it's essential that the on-site and online spaces are as seamlessly connected as possible. You simply can't expect everyone to always be on-site and you will always need external expertise.

To enable this video communication needs to become even more ubiquitous so that meetings with online colleagues can be set up easily and with a good quality connection from every part of the office space. Online colleagues can then be brought into any discussion without the need to book a certain room or spend time setting up headsets or external speakers. Document sharing, collaborative writing, online work spaces and asynchronous discussion spaces also need to be standard practice. Are there ways to allow online colleagues be part of social occasions in the office? Maybe allow them to drop in on a coffee break or celebration. We can invest a lot in redesigning the physical space to facilitate collaboration but we also need to redesign the online spaces so they offer similar inspiration and ensure that the two worlds are integrated. The office space can and should be repopulated but we need to expand the concept and see the office as both a physical and a digital space.



Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Open means accessible

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One important aspect of openness is accessibility but how many open educational resources meet accessibility guidelines?  How many films offer subtitles and a text manuscript, can all texts offer text to speech, are there transcripts of audio podcasts and are there options for slower playback of video and audio material? The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide all the necessary guidelines for web-based content but I suspect a large amount of educational content falls short (maybe even this blog!).

This has been a largely overlooked aspect of openness but an article in Inside Higher Ed, Berkeley Will Delete Online Content, reveals that Berkeley's whole open courseware program has been called out for not complying to accessibility legislation.

The Justice Department, following an investigation, in August determined that the university was violating the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The department reached that conclusion after receiving complaints from two employees of Gallaudet University, saying Berkeley’s free online educational content was inaccessible to blind and deaf people because of a lack of captions, screen reader compatibility and other issues.

Complying with these demands would be a time-consuming and costly process for the university; 20,000 audio and video files would have to be upgraded. So Berkeley have chosen to remove the offending resources from the public space and put everything back where it came from, closed behind the university log-in. This process alone is calculated to take between three to five months.

“In many cases the requirements proposed by the department would require the university to implement extremely expensive measures to continue to make these resources available to the public for free,” Koshland wrote in a Sept. 20 statement. “We believe that in a time of substantial budget deficits and shrinking state financial support, our first obligation is to use our limited resources to support our enrolled students. Therefore, we must strongly consider the unenviable option of whether to remove content from public access.”

This would seem to be a major blow to open education and I can imagine that many other institutions will be checking their own open courseware to see how well it meets accessibility requirements. But most importantly it shows that accessibility should be built in to all educational resources, whether they are publicly available or restricted access. Moving resources from public view doesn't solve the problem because you need to ensure that all students can access and use the resources as part of their education. It would be very sad if this endangers the further development of openness in education but if it means that awareness of accessibility will be raised than maybe it's a step that must be taken.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

In your own words ...


The cat and mouse game of plagiarism detection is becoming increasingly difficult for schools and universities as the technology that assists cheating becomes increasingly sophisticated and hard to detect. Simple straight plagiarism generally gets caught by the widely used detection tools like Turnitin but these tools are relatively powerless against more advanced forms of cheating. The most effective method is a human solution like essay mills where students can earn money writing other students' essays and guaranteeing "originality". This is almost impossible to detect unless there are genuine examples of the students' writing to compare with. However a new grey area of plagiarism has come to light with the rise of automatic paraphrasing tools that can rephrase a text so that it will not be flagged as plagiarism in automatic checks.

Paraphrasing is one of the most important skills that students must learn. Summarising a text to capture the essence in your own words and of course providing a reference to the source is a skill that takes years to perfect. However many people are unsure of where the line is drawn between paraphrasing and copying; simply changing a few words to synonyms is not enough and in all cases the original text must be cited. A new study by Ann M. Rogerson and Grace McCarthyUsing Internet based paraphrasing tools: Original work, patchwriting or facilitated plagiarism?, examines how these paraphrasing tools, also known as essay spinning, can be used to evade plagiarism detection and the implications for both students and teachers.

There are many free paraphrasing/essay spinning tools, for example Paraphrasing Tool and GoParaphrase are both tested in the study, and all you do is paste in the text you want summarised and then click for the new text. The results are not impressive, often with many unusual synonyms and awkward turns of phrase but in many cases the text is sufficiently far from the original to avoid being detected in a plagiarism check. If you are willing to pay there are more sophisticated tools that no doubt produce more polished paraphrasing. The study showed that the resultant texts were not detected as plagiarism by standard anti-plagiarism tools. So how can we detect this practice and more importantly how can we prevent people from being tempted to use such tools in the first place?

One aspect that interests me is when paraphrasing is used by non-native English speakers who may be weak at paraphrasing on their own due to limited vocabulary and lack of linguistic fluency. The unusual vocabulary that the paraphrasing tools dig up could be seen by the teacher grading the essay as simply linguistic inexperience rather than signs of automatic paraphrasing. For native speakers this would hopefully start alarm bells ringing but it's not so easy for non-native speakers, most of whom will make similar errors when genuinely paraphrasing themselves.

Where a student is considered to lack the necessary linguistic skills, the errors or inaccuracies may be interpreted by assessors as a student having a poor understanding of academic writing conventions rather than recognising that a student may not have written the work themselves. Where an academic is working in an additional language, they may find the detection of the errors or inaccuracies more difficult to identify.

Another aspect is when the paraphrased text includes references. One amusing side effect of these tools is that even the references get paraphrased and the titles of cited articles get changed beyond recognition, as well as finding synonyms for the authors' surnames. However if you paraphrase a text and use the citations without acknowledging that you did not find these references yourself then that is also dishonest. Finding your own references to support your arguments is an integral part of academic writing.

Furthermore, students using an online paraphrasing system fail to demonstrate their understanding of the assessment task and hence fail to provide evidence of achieving learning outcomes. If they do not acknowledge the source of the text which they have put through the paraphrasing tool, they are also guilty of academic misconduct. On both counts, they would not merit a pass in the subject for which they submit such material.

What can educators do to prevent students from using these tools? The most obvious strategy is to discuss the issue regularly in class, showing that you are aware of these tools and pointing out the dangers. I suspect that many students are simply unaware that automatic paraphrasing is wrong. More support should be offered developing paraphrasing skills and why it they are so vital. Furthermore, the wider use of oral testing is recommended in the article since it is much harder for a student to take short cuts and the teacher can quickly gauge the student's understanding of the subject. Finally educators need to learn how to spot signs of machine translation and automatic paraphrasing and realise that their own professional judgement is still the most important element in assessing student work, even when anti-plagiarism tools are in place.

Of course this post is itself an example of paraphrasing to a certain extent. I hope I pass the test!

Reference
Rogerson AM, McCarthy G.(2017) Using Internet based paraphrasing tools: Original work, patchwriting or facilitated plagiarism? International Journal for Educational Integrity

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Trends take time - evolution not revolution

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Trends are generally about relatively slow change processes rather than a quick flip from one state to another. This is especially true for digitalisation and despite optimistic claims of revolutions and disruption we're in the midst of a long and slow evolution in which some traditional concepts will disappear but many will continue to thrive alongside digital alternatives. Here are a few signs I've noticed this week that show that we're maybe not as digital as the popular narrative suggests.

I came across a new report on online learning behaviour, GoConqr Online Learning Report 2017, that contained a few slightly surprising observations. GoConqr is a social learning network where users can create their own learning resources, share them, create networks and collaborate. The report is the result of a survey on the online learning preferences of 2.5 millions users on the platform. Of course the learners surveyed here represent a very wide range of online learners and the platform does not represent any formal higher education but some of the findings are worth discussing.

The first concerns online collaboration, or rather the relative lack of it.

Despite the prevalence of social networking, online study tends to be a solitary activity: 79% of people choose not to study collaboratively when they are online.

This doesn't surprise me at all because effective collaboration is an advanced skill that takes time to learn and develop both face-to-face and even more so online. Most people can certainly post a comment or share a photo but collaboration involves working asynchronously on a common document or work space having agreed on ground rules on how to collaborate and using the right tools for the job. Online collaboration is an increasingly vital work skill today but is seldom taught in schools and universities. Most people still assume that online learning is by default a solitary pursuit and don't expect anything else even when joining a social learning community like GoConqr.

The next eyebrow-raiser is the claim that surprisingly few learners use mobile devices when they want to access educational content or create their own learning resources.

Learning is lower down the list of priorities for users of mobile devices. Using mobile devices for education is quite low compared to other activities.

This also goes against the prevailing narrative that learners are using mobiles to access courses and learning resources. The report suggests that although mobile use has exploded in the last 15 years we use them mainly for communication and more social activities and that mobile learning is maybe not as prevalent as we have assumed. I suspect that mobiles are used for access to content, checking schedules and chatting but maybe creative activities are more easily done on larger screens. I would like to see if universities can observe similar tendencies among students or whether GoConqr's survey is more typical of less formal learning.

Another digression from the standard digitalisation narrative comes in an article in University World NewsStudents not abandoning pen and paper – 10-nation study, referring to a new study by Jane Vincent (University of Surrey, UK), Students’ use of paper and pen versus digital media in university environments for writing and reading – a cross-cultural exploration (Journal of Print and Media Technology Research V (2) 97-106), showing how students still prefer to take notes by hand on the grounds that the physical action of writing seems to aid memory more than digital note-taking. There have been a number of studies in recent years all reinforcing the value of handwriting and warning against schools taking an over-enthusiastic emphasis on digital devices. Vincent's surveyed the writing preferences of 650 students from Europe and Asia and concludes that students are continuing to write by hand when that form has an advantage over digital media.

“There is no doubt that students have embraced the use of digital technologies in the educational setting of their university with enthusiasm but they have also found that the affordances of chirographic writing and the use of paper have special qualities that cannot be matched by digital media.”

Many tech skeptics pounce on studies like this to maintain that traditional media are still best but this study, like all the others I have read, shows instead that physical and digital media exist happily side by side and complement each other. The skill required today for both students and educators is being able to decide which tool or arena is best for the task in hand and stop seeing it as a conflict between tradition and modernity.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Over the horizon

CC0 Public domain by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
It's February so it's time for the annual NMC Horizon Higher Education Report on trends and challenges in educational technology. It is an extremely challenging task to select and define the key changes taking place or waiting ahead and since this is done every year the view towards the horizon will inevitably change from year to year. As a result technologies and trends seem to come and go almost at random and old friends return to the report after years of absence. This inconsistency is discussed and tracked by Audrey Watters in a commentary on this year's report, What's on the Horizon (Still, Again, Always) for Ed-Tech. Trends from previous reports suddenly disappear, prompting questions on whether they have flopped, been successfully adopted or are no longer considered relevant.

Although the report makes it clear that higher education faces daunting challenges in the near future it offers many useful examples of innovative projects and initiatives that point the way forward and show that there are answers to these challenges. However, the report is based on the assumption that the world is developing in a democratic and rational manner and that the political and social structures of the last 30 years will continue to develop in a linear and predictable way. The development of open learning, collaboration, innovation, learning analytics and artificial intelligence depends on a society that values the common good and respects its citizens. How will the growth of authoritarian, populist governments affect education, especially when representatives of such political movements openly question and even scorn the value of science and education? Surely the most wicked challenge for education today is political, as Watters points out:

There’s no mention of Trump and little discussion of state and federal education policies (accreditation, financial aid, for-profit higher education, DACA, Title IX, campus carry, for example). No mention of academic freedom (although, to be fair, there is a brief discussion of adjunctification). There’s very limited discussion of funding (that is, limited to discussion of “funding innovation” and not to funding higher education more broadly or to how students themselves will pay for post-secondary education or personal computing devices and broadband). Education technology in the Horizon Report is almost entirely stripped of politics, a political move in and of itself.

The report, as usual, discusses trends, technologies and challenges under various categories and classified under a timescale of 1-2 years perspective, 3-4 years and 5+ years. Of course you can discuss the classification, the names given to the different phenomena and the timescale but in the introduction the report's authors readily admit the difficulties of pinning down trends that are continually changing, shifting focus and tend to merge with each other. 

In observing the numerous overlaps from edition to edition, it is important to note that while topics may repeatedly appear, they only represent the broad strokes of educational change; each trend, challenge, and technology development evolves over time, with fresh perspectives and new dimensions revealed every year. For example, both mobile and online learning today are not what they were yesterday.

Very simply we're in a period of evolution as digital technology enables new approaches to education and learning. Educators and learners are trying out a wide variety of technologies and mixing them with traditional methods to create new solutions that may or may not have lasting effects. The technologies are so interrelated and their success so dependent on pedagogy, leadership and structural support that it is hard to classify them as the report tries to do. The key to change lies in attitudes.

... technology alone cannot cultivate education transformation; better pedagogies and more inclusive education models are vital solutions, while digital tools and platforms are enablers and accelerators. 

The report introduces six meta-categories which I think are more useful for understanding what's going on. All the developments listed in the report each fall under one or more of these meta-categories.
  • Expanding Access and Convenience. This includes access to content, communities, support, collaborative tools etc from any device and in any location. This of course assumes that you have the necessary hardware and infrastructure; something that is not available at present for millions.
  • Spurring Innovation. Institutions developing a culture of innovation, openness and collaboration for both staff and students as well as between institutions. Culture change in organisations is an extremely difficult challenge and requires full leadership commitment that is met by a grassroots interest.
  • Fostering Authentic Learning. Easing the transition from study to work by developing essential skills such as teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking and project management (both online and face-to-face). This requires considerable development in terms of learning spaces (physical and digital), course design, teaching and administration.  
  • Tracking and Evaluating Evidence. This includes learning analytics, adaptive learning and other technologies that offer the promise of personalised learning. Many concerns need to be resolved here about the ethics of storing vast amounts of student data and where it is stored. 
  • Improving the Teaching Profession. The future role of the teacher has been discussed for many years and even if perceptions are changing, the barrier of tradition is hard to overcome. There is still a general lack of incentives for innovative teachers, little professional support in terms of effective use of educational technology and a lack of recognition for pedagogical excellence.
  • Spreading Digital Fluency. I like this term since it has different connotations to digital literacies. Literacies are about awareness but fluency suggests skill and the ability to combine literacies in a professional manner.
The meta-trend that is missing is the increasingly unstable political climate in so many countries and the threat that poses to how the net will be used in the future and how that will affect education. Making predictions with a horizon of more than one year suddenly feels unrealistic. Let's see how this influences next year's report.


Download the NMC Horizon Report > 2017 Higher Education Edition (PDF)

Finally have a look at this film that takes you quickly through the main areas of the report in just under eight minutes.




Sunday, February 12, 2017

Change is a shared responsibility


I read a short article on the news site eLearning industry, Why There Is Lack Of Enthusiasm Some Employees Have For Social And Collaboration Tools? about why digital collaboration has not really become mainstream, despite so many compelling arguments. The article deals with the difficulties of convincing employees of the benefits of online collaboration in the corporate sector.

... while many organizations have been full-heartedly adopting social or collaborative tools, these solutions work best when all members of a team use them. In most organizations, there is an evident struggle to get all employees interested in utilizing these tools to their fullest capabilities.

The article goes on to list barriers to the adoption of collaborative tools: lack of value, poor user interface and too many features. All of these are familiar issues, both in the corporate sector and in public education, but I would like to add what I think is the most crucial barrier to technology adoption - our instinctive aversion to unnecessary effort when we are faced with change.

Those who are curious about new solutions and embrace change are generally not satisfied with the status quo. Some are naturally inquisitive and are constantly looking for new ways to solve daily problems and are willing to put in extra hours to test and refine them. Change comes at a cost; long hours of trial, failure and frustration. However, if the potential reward seems great enough we'll make that effort.

On the other hand the vast majority of us are wary of change, primarily, I believe, because change comes at a price. If we're relatively content with the way we work today, there is little motivation to adopt new technology. Even if we suspect that the technology may make some aspect of our work more effective, that improvement is not worth the time we fear it will take to master the innovation. There's also the fear of failure - what if it doesn't work, what if I make a mess of it? The longer you avoid addressing this change the greater the effort required and this creates a vicious circle that I suspect many teachers are caught up in today. Many realise that they should have adopted technology many years ago but now it feels like the gap is so great that trying to catch up at this late stage is futile.

So what is the answer to the question posed by the article? A lot of responsibility lies at management level, leading by example and using digital tools in an exemplary way. Fostering an inclusive sense of community in the organisation where innovation is encouraged and most importantly recognised and rewarded. Providing support to staff, both in terms of educational technologists and online support, is essential so that no-one feels alone and that innovation is a shared process. Increased use of online collaboration tools can also be a feature of a sustainability programme, helping to reduce paper consumption or travel. If the change is a community effort and you know you are part of a planned and shared development with support and clear rewards great things can happen. Most importantly, we need to find ways of sharing and thus reducing the extra effort and risk involved in daring to change.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Layers of openness


I have been talking and writing about openness in education for the past ten years or so and still believe that openness in terms of access to educational resources, the right to reuse and recycle existing material and the open publication of research and academic discussion, is vital to a democratic and tolerant society. However my belief in openness has been shaken by the rise of "alternative truth", intolerance and demagogy that so dominate the public space today. I cannot unreservedly support openness as I would have done a year ago. Belief in the benefits of openness, crowd-sourcing or the wisdom of the crowd are based on an assumption that the crowd is benevolent, supportive and behaves in a civilized manner. Sadly we see so often that the wisdom of the crowd can easily turn into the rage of the mob.

How much openness in education can we advocate? Can we recommend students and colleagues to publish their reflections and findings in an open arena where there is a risk of being attacked, humiliated and threatened? Advocating openness is easy for those of us who have never been the subject of bullying, hatred and ridicule but we need to be more aware of the risks and make sure that we don't risk pushing vulnerable students into danger. An article in Campus Technology, Top Fears Shutting the Door on Open Education, looks at ways of helping teachers understand the benefits of using open educational resources and practices but also warns educators about an uncritical approach to openness. Words of caution come from Rolin Moe, formerly Seattle Pacific University:

Moe wants to see more administrators think critically about open pedagogy, using open pedagogy where it's most appropriate, rather than using it for its own sake. Scientific work, for example, might be more appropriate when taught openly. But something like creative writing, which is tied to the identity of a student, should perhaps be taught in a more protective environment.

Maybe we shouldn't aim for openness as default. The level of openness can depend on context and in some cases there are compelling arguments for using more closed environments. Of course there are many places where open discussion does take place without toxic comments but that fear will naturally make many people think twice about participating. I admit that I am much more cautious about joining certain discussions now and try to think at least twice about what I publish and where. If learning is hindered by openness and we learn better in restricted spaces then maybe that's where we need to focus our attention. Moe continues:

"My fear is that we're so beholden to this idea of open as a good, that we hold that above what the true purpose of learning is supposed to be in some cases," said Moe. "I want to encourage people to learn in grand and wide networks, but there are times when that's not going to be the best way to do it."

I wonder if we have to redefine openness into a layered approach; levels of openness depending on context. Simply insisting that everything must be open is sadly not realistic in today's society and when we do step out into the open we need to be prepared both for the opportunities and the threats. Preparing for openness means first working in more sheltered environments where mistakes can be made and analysed. Students who are worried about going open should be respected and an alternative safer arena chosen for sharing their work. More time must be spent on discussing what can and cannot be published openly, how to handle discussion threads, how to deal with trolls and how to use the safeguards, filters and settings available on most publishing tools. The open ocean is probably not the best place to learn to swim.

I still believe in openness but I see many benefits in closed or restricted environments. They allow us to create a learning community based on mutual trust and respect, where mistakes can be made and learnt from. Full openness demands maturity, confidence and skill to negotiate.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Identity a major factor in online course completion

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One of the key factors to course completion is identity; feeling that you belong to a group and are acknowledged as such. This sense of belonging is relevant both on campus and online but if it is not achieved the resulting isolation is more acute in online courses. In for-credit online courses where numbers are limited there are many strategies for creating an inclusive community for the students, see in particular Cynthia Clays5 Principles for Maximum Engagement and Gilly Salmon’s five-stage-model for online learning. However in a MOOC with thousands of participants teacher contact becomes impractical but that doesn't mean that you can't create a sense of community anyway.

This is the subject of a new study by RenĂ© Kizilcec and colleagues at Stanford University, according to an article on Stanford News, Brief interventions help online learners persist with coursework, Stanford research finds. They noted that participants from countries with a lower rating on the United Nations’ Human Development Index were less likely to complete a MOOC than those from countries higher up that index. There are several potential barriers here such as inadequate infrastructure, lack of  up-to-date devices or limited ability in English, but this study decided to look at the issue of social identity and a feeling of inadequacy when joining a course.

Kizilcec and others theorize that a psychological barrier contributes to the global gap in MOOCs, namely social identity threat, which is a fear of being seen as less competent because of a social identity. Research has demonstrated that social identity threat can impair a person’s working memory and academic performance.

Millions of people enroll in courses with low levels of self confidence that are often unintentionally reinforced by the way they are introduced to the course. Many are taking their first hesitant step into higher education with a strong built-in feeling that they are probably not good enough. Whenever they encounter unfamiliar terminology (especially academic terms) or unclear instructions their first reaction is something like "I knew I wasn't clever enough for this course" and unless they can get some support they are very likely to give up. This feeling is magnified if the course forum is full of confident and articulate native English speakers. It is vital that these learners get some positive reinforcement right at the start of the course.

The Stanford study tested pre-course activities where participants could write about how the course could support their most important values and allowed them to read testimonials from previous participants about how they overcame feelings of isolation at the beginning of the course and were able to succeed in the end. These activities did not require direct teacher interaction but simply giving learners the chance to state their own values and reflect over how to succeed in the course had a remarkable effect on the learners who otherwise were most likely to leave the course. The completion rate for learners from less developed countries was raised from 17% to 41%.

“It is an impressive result which suggests that social identity threat can be a barrier to performance in international learning contexts, even in online environments with little social interaction,” Kizilcec said. “It goes to show that a small change to the online experience can have profound and lasting effects if it influences people’s perceptions of an environment.”

This confirms how vital it is to create an welcoming and supportive course introduction and to offer learners a chance to reflect on their own values and objectives before starting. Course information must be as inclusive and clear (jargon-free) as possible and a variety of tools and strategies can be used to help everyone identify with the course and feel part of it. Online questionnaires like the ones used in this study are one way but others can be allowing learners to create study groups in their own languages or with people from the same region. Short personal and encouraging weekly video messages from the teachers can also help to create a sense of belonging. Often the difference between drop-out and completion can be a few kind words of encouragement.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Combating academic spam

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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

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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.