Thursday, December 26, 2013

Flop of the year - MOOCs?

As another "year of the MOOC" draws to a close it's worth stepping back a little and see what impact the phenomenon has really made on the world of education. Anyone who is part of the global edtech community has been eating, breathing and sleeping MOOCs for at least the last two years and it's easy to believe that the rest of the world is equally excited and involved in the discussion. However I still meet lots of clever updated students and teachers who've never heard the term and when it comes to friends outside education it doesn't even get a blip on the radar.

Infoworld has an article revealing the tech flops of the year, The worst tech predictions of 2013 -- and two that hit the mark, and guess what makes the flop list - yes MOOCs! A surprising choice given all the publicity and impressive numbers (Coursera's 5.8 million students) but a few million here and there don't add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world (to quote Bogart in Casablanca). There's a lot of activity and experiment but MOOCs are not yet reaching the lives of the real target audience, those with no access to regular higher education. The article presents the familiar evidence of few learners lasting more than a week or two on the majority of MOOCs:

Despite the unending hype, MOOCs have not taken off. A study of more than 1 million MOOC enrollees, released in December by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, found that on average only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.

The mere inclusion of MOOCs in a list of flops gives food for thought and invites us in the edtech community to step back a few paces and consider what real effects this alleged revolution has really had. I suspect that 2014 will see the term MOOC beginning to disappear and a more mature terminology evolving. There will be a wide flora of online education with wide-ranging interpretations of the word "open" and we will see some models make significant inroads in offering educational opportunities for people unable to participate in the traditional higher educational system. The full impact however of this movement will take several years to become fully apparent. Some present MOOC models will become purely commercial whilst others will embrace openness and innovation. They will complement not replace the traditional education system and hopefully contribute to its development. 

Maybe MOOC has become a bit too big for its boots and needs to be taken down a peg. A place on the flop of the year list may not be a bad move at all. Time for the trough of disillusionment anyone?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reading on paper or screen - what's the difference?

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

I often get into discussions about the pros and cons of reading print or screen texts. It's an emotional issue as many book lovers feel threatened by a digital takeover and the possible demise of books and newspapers. Many find screen reading a strain and prefer to print longer texts they find on the net. Many find digital formats lack the feel and soul of the print version and enjoy the tactile appeal of a book. I read both varieties and although I still prefer print I realize that it's largely a matter of what you are accustomed to. I can't see printed media disappearing in the near future though just take a look at the music industry to see an equally radical change that took place without many people really noticing - our music collections have moved from the shelves of our living rooms to our mobiles and record stores have almost disappeared from most high streets. Certainly there is discussion about how the sound quality of digital mp3 files is far inferior to that of vinyl records but for the vast majority that doesn't seem to matter. So what about the differences between print and screen reading?

I found an article from last year by Cindy Orr called Paper Vs. Screen—Does It Matter Anymore? She reviews research evidence for a significant difference between screen and print reading and finds that previously perceived differences are slowly disappearing.
  • We're reading much faster on the screen today than a few years ago and studies indicate that the gap is narrowing into insignificance.
  • Comprehension levels are about the same even if many people think they understand a print text better.
  • We feel much more comfortable with screen reading especially with the advent of tablets.
  • Our reading behaviour, in terms of eye movements, is very similar between print and screen.
A BBC article, Young people 'prefer to read on screen', describes the rapid shift to screens among children, with over 50% preferring screen to print, and how this affects reading ability.

"Younger children who read printed books as well as used computers were more likely to have higher reading levels than those who only read on screen, the study said. Although this gap did not apply to those children who used tablet computers or e-readers."

If the differences are melting away our perceptions are not changing as fast. Maybe there are other factors that affect our attitude to screen reading. A good summary of such factors is presented in an article by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. One important aspect is the tactile aspects of a print book or magazine. We can feel the weight of the book, easily see how far we have progressed and can quickly flick the pages to see where the present chapter ends. We also have spatial aspects of print reading, remembering where we were in the book when something happened or remembering the layout of a particular page. Screen reading is often seen as putting a strain on the eyes and affecting concentration but new studies suggest that these problems occur when using a computer where scrolling and mouse clicks are necessary. The latest tablets reproduce the feeling of a print book much more realistically and few find reading a strain on such screens.

Another interesting factor is that maybe we treat screen content as somehow less "serious" than print and are not prepared to concentrate as hard. Digital content has lots of tempting links to check and your are likely to have other applications open at the same time leading to all the tempting distractions of social media and e-mail that I wrote about in last week's post.

"An emerging collection of studies emphasizes that in addition to screens possibly taxing people's attention more than paper, people do not always bring as much mental effort to screens in the first place. Subconsciously, many people may think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair than reading on paper. Based on a detailed 2005 survey of 113 people in northern California, Ziming Liu of San Jose State University concluded that people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts—they spend more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper, and are more likely to read a document once, and only once."

Despite all this I still feel that reading is reading whatever the delivery medium. I'm sure you can read as deeply on a screen as you do in a print book but you have to make a conscious decision to concentrate. Digital reading can be distracting if you choose to keep the distractions active but the same is true with print. If you try to read a complex print book with the TV on, music in your headset or with friends or family in the same room your concentration will be equally impaired. Once again it's about focus.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Learning to focus

Focus by toolstop, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by toolstop

The topic of multitasking and our inability to concentrate on one thing at a time is a recurring topic in the media and on this blog (while writing this sentence an e-mail and a few Twitter messages rolled into my laptop with accompanying bleeps - must switch them off!). Our obsession with mobiles and social media is not a simple generational issue since parents and teachers are often just as likely to be distracted by the lure of their mobiles as teenagers are. If you think teenagers have difficulty concentrating in class just sit at the back of any conference room and see what adult professionals are doing on their laptops while someone is speaking on stage. Basically when it comes to digital technology we're all like cows who have just been let out into the field after a long cold winter. Few are able to control our desire for recognition, self-promotion and communication that technology offers us and we haven't yet had time to calm down and wonder what we're really doing.

So maybe the ability focus attention will become a key competence in schools in the near future. We need to explicitly practice the skill of focusing on one task like deep reading or simple silent reflection and learn to switch off all the bleeping distractions. This is the topic of an article in Mindshift, Age of Distraction: Why It’s Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus, that interviews Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. The ability to focus is a key factor behind all high level performers. Top artists and athletes all have the ability to focus completely on their task and in some cases enter into an almost trance like state. Today's love for multitasking and switching constantly between different activities can lead to us never acquiring this vital skill.

“This ability is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health,” Goleman said. That could be a problem for students in the U.S. who often seem addicted to their devices, unable to put them down for even a few moments. Teachers say students are unable to comprehend the same texts that generations of students that came before them could master without problems, said Goleman. These are signs that educators may need to start paying attention to the act of attention itself. Digital natives may need help cultivating what was once an innate part of growing up.

How and when to use digital tools and devices is an essential part of the school curriculum today and that includes knowing how and when to switch off and focus. I'm not sure that having tech-free days is particularly useful because technology is ubiquitous today. Instead we should try to foster a wise use of technology. If you're focusing on writing an assignment you must of course use your laptop or tablet but you need to learn to only use the tools essential for that job and switch off the distractions. Switching off everything is an unnecessary "cold turkey" solution. We need to develop a mature relationship with technology and this will take time.