Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tired tech narratives - disruption at a price

There are a number of recurring narratives in this business that we all enjoy telling and hearing to the extent that repetition leads to belief; feel-good stories about how technology is changing education and society for the better. Although these stories have elements of truth they tend to accentuate the positive and in some cases become dangerous myths. Here are two such narratives that simply won't go away.

Firstly there is the old chestnut of digital natives and a naive belief that the kids/students will work everything out for themselves. Students are using all sorts of innovative digital tools to learn for themselves and this is pushing institutions to respond. Of course there are elements of truth here. There are numerous anecdotes of teenagers creating impressive tech start-ups and the often retold tales of toddlers trying to swipe a printed book and being amazed it doesn't work like an iPad. I don't doubt these but they are more exceptions rather than the rule. Yes, most children and teenagers are completely comfortable with technology but it doesn't mean that they can work out how to search, filter, collaborate, work, study and create without any assistance. I'm not sure either that students are driving educational change as we often hear at conferences. In my experience, students are good at adapting to the institution's teaching methods and even if some may well find the teaching uninspiring they simply find ways to cope since they need the qualification and have taken on a substantial loan in order to get it. Some are using technology to enhance their studies but many only use the tools offered by the institution. Education is changing as a result of digitalisation but the main drivers in my opinion are innovative teachers and insightful leaders, urged on by the ed tech industry; for better or for worse, but that is another story.

The second popular narrative is that of the future workplace. I've seen plenty inspiring accounts of innovative work spaces at high tech companies like Google or Apple where employees have project meetings on giant beanbags, play basketball or take a yoga break whenever they need inspiration. It looks very attractive and they are undoubtedly inspiring places to work. In the same narrative we hear about the growth of the gig economy where everyone works as a consultant moving seamlessly from project to project with breaks for competence development from time to time. Success is built on being flexible, constantly developing your skills, being able to reinvent yourself and always searching for new challenges. The word disruption occurs frequently in this narrative. Technology is disrupting traditional practices and a new flexible and ever-changing society is emerging offering opportunities and growth for those who are able to adapt.

However this narrative also has a dark side. The creative and innovative workplaces we see in these conference presentations are for a well-educated elite with the financial resources to tide them over between projects. For the vast majority, however, the modern workplace has a very different narrative with long hours, stressful schedules, low pay, few if any benefits and seldom knowing whether or not you'll be needed next week. The stars of the digital economy tend not to employ very many people and many of those who do work there are involved in the less glamorous side of operations; in the warehouses or working from home on low wages. The flip side of this gig economy are the people who scramble for zero hours contract jobs with no security and never knowing whether they will get paid next week at all. The digital revolution is not so attractive for those on the wrong side. See more on this in a BBC article, Why "cool" offices don't always make for a happier workforce.

So how about companies taking some social responsibility for all the job losses and problems their disruptive innovation causes? This issue is raised by András Baneth in a recent TEDx talk (see below). He takes examples like Uber, Airbnb and Facebook as companies that have come under hard criticism for the results of their operations and offers advice on how companies should take responsibility and enhance their reputation. This involves at a basic level at least admitting that your business has created some serious issues in society instead of simply denying any responsibility. Then the company can try to help tackle those issues, for example by finding ways to prevent the spread of hate and fake news or funding retraining initiatives for those whose businesses suffer due to their operations.

Disruption is generally viewed positively today and the narrative of bold innovative young entrepreneurs "taking on the establishment" and overturning the system nearly always goes down well at conferences. However disruption also has consequences. A deregulated market can make some people very rich but can also cast many more into unemployment, poverty or insecurity. Social media let everyone have their say but also make it easy to spread hate and prejudice. It may not be completely the fault of the messenger (such as Facebook) but they have certainly a major role and need to recognise this.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Towards virtual mobility

Virtual mobility is a concept that enables internationalisation for all by using digital media to let students collaborate on projects, modules and even entire courses without the need to travel. It can also enable teachers from partner universities in different countries to make virtual study visits as well as collaborate on course design and offering joint courses. Since the technology has been available for many years you would imagine that virtual mobility would be mainstream by now but sadly this is not true. For most people the concept of mobility refers only to physical mobility.

For the past two years I've been involved in a project at my university, called Global Classroom, to raise awareness of virtual mobility and the opportunities it offers. The main aim is to create a framework and organisation to establish international networking and collaboration as a key element in all courses at undergraduate and masters level at Linnaeus University. The project does not have the resources to make major changes in the organisation so we have focused on helping degree programme leaders to identify the degree of internationalisation in their programme from three perspectives (faculty, teacher and student) during workshops where they work from a self-assessment grid. They then select criteria that can be realistically fulfilled within, say, a year and we then help them to plan the process and raise the internationalisation level. We aim to raise the bar and then cascade the lessons learned to other programmes rather than trying to impose radical change. Take a tour around our project website for more information.

One inspiration for the project was the OUVM (Opening universities for virtual mobility) project that concluded last year. Partner universities from five countries offered a selection of online courses of 3-6 credits and students could study one of these and get credits from their own university as well as recognition that they had gained international study experience. This is the online equivalent of an Erasmus exchange in which so many European students participate and points the way towards offering students much more scope for mobility and intercultural exchange in the future. Virtual mobility may not be as exciting as actually travelling but if that option is not available it can still offer many advantages, not least learning the skill of collaborating online.

There are many advantages of promoting virtual mobility, for the students, staff and for the university as a whole. The most important aspect is making internationalisation a natural part of all studies rather than a brief adventure for a select few. Experience of working in an international environment and collaborating in multi-cultural groups is today an extremely important element in every graduate's CV and although the best experience is to actually travel to another country that opportunity is not available for all. The inclusive element of virtual mobility is therefore extremely important but seems not to be promoted so actively at many universities. Working with virtual mobility is also an opportunity to expand our cooperation with international partner universities. Furthermore virtual mobility can complement and enhance physical mobility by facilitating deeper collaboration between students before and after the physical visit.

Of course there are many obstacles. The most obvious is that any new practice involves considerable effort and time, often in short supply for teachers and leaders already under pressure. New methods, tools and routines must be developed and tested as well as partnerships established. Digital skills are essential as well as awareness of multi-cultural communication. Virtual mobility must be integrated into the syllabus and must lead to tangible rewards, primarily in the form of credits, not as an optional extra. One avenue we are exploring is using badges to reward participation in virtual mobility activities as additional recognition. This means that badges must be established as recognised credentials at the university and that process takes time.

We realise that the process will be a slow one but the word is spreading and there are already several promising initiatives. The key factor is of course management support and providing the time and resources for teachers to experiment with and implement different forms of virtual mobility.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Online, distance, blended, mobile, campus, hybrid - it's all about learning

We love to put labels on everything but the problem is that the object or concept that we label refuses to obediently stand still and remain true to the label we placed on it. Many concepts have changed significantly but remain trapped under an outdated label, charged with often inaccurate preconceptions and prejudices. This is very true in education, especially when discussing the use of technology, and has resulted in a host of terms to describe education that involves some element of technology to allow participation that is not strictly tied to a physical classroom.

I'm very uncomfortable with all the terms used to describe this field: online, distance, blended, mobile, hybrid, technology-enhanced, web-based etc. As soon as you add one of these epithets you put it in a box, apart from the mainstream term learning, thereby encouraging a polarisation between traditional (standard) and "alternative" forms. Being asked to read a printed book at home and write an essay on it is considered standard whereas doing the same thing on a screen is suddenly alternative and different.

Tony Bates has written an interesting post about a major survey of online and distance learning in Canada that he is involved in, What is online learning? Seeking definition. An essential part of such a survey is being able to define what types of education to include and not surprisingly there is a plethora of terms and definitions with considerable variation in interpretation between universities and colleges. The distinctions that existed 20 years ago have now become blurred and it is questionable whether some terms should be maintained at all.

Although from about the late 1990s until quite recently, most online learning was asynchronous, and based primarily on the use of text-based learning management systems, that context appears to be rapidly shifting, with more synchronous approaches either replacing or being combined with asynchronous learning (another definition of ‘blended’), and the increasing use of streamed audio and video. What is already clear from the piloting is that we are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what is happening.

For me all learning today is blended in some way or another: instruction and collaboration, online and on-site, synchronous and asynchronous. Labeling creates an illusion of order but in truth most education today involves some element of technology and it is becoming impossible to maintain clear definitions. Let's move on to using a mix of modern and traditional tools and methods to design courses that offer flexibility and inclusion allowing learners to participate and interact in a variety of ways and not be restricted to only one space, method or tool. It's about learning, using the media, tools and methods that are available today in the most appropriate way to support the learning outcomes. Labels confuse more than they enlighten.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Innovation through familiarity

Educational technology has mostly been used to simply continue doing what we have always done, the innovation element being that we can now do it digitally. We've seen this in the use of learning management systems, lecture capture, digital examination and e-books, all of which don't change the paradigm or challenge tradition but add important elements of access, flexibility and convenience. These have gained mainstream acceptance probably because they don't demand any radical rethink or major investment of time and effort. It seems that most of us feel daunted by change and if we are going to accept innovation it has to be wrapped in a familiar package and must not demand too much of our time. Take the computer. Even today we still use the qwerty keyboard inherited from the typewriter of 100 years ago despite many attempts at creating a more intuitive interface. We still refer to a desktop and put documents in folders. The new expressed in terms of the old to maintain a sense of security and minimise the shock of the new.

This is the theme of an intriguing article by Nir Eyal, People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently. He takes the example of how Americans learned to love sushi; instead of using Japanese names they made it out of familiar west coast ingredients and called it a California Roll. After that the real name could be safely introduced and now everyone eats it. This shows how defining the new in terms of the old is a wise ploy and Eyal therefore proposes the California Roll Rule: People don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently. How many innovations have flopped not because of any intrinsic fault or lack of potential but simply because they were just a bit too new, the wrong side of familiar.

Unfortunately, our aversion to things that are outside the norm is particularly hard on companies producing radical innovation — no matter how beneficial they may be. If using a new product does not feel familiar, it faces severe challenges.

Innovation tends to be incremental and takes time. What often happens is that something new is first adapted (tamed) to something familiar. For instance a lot of educational technology is first used to continue doing what we've always done, reinforcing the classroom or the lecture. In some cases the innovation ends in a dead end without ever fulfilling its potential, in other cases it starts breaking new ground only after several years of "tamed use". The development of open education is a case in point, starting with enormous potential but then developing into rather traditionally designed MOOCs and even becoming integrated into the regular higher education system and losing some important aspects of the concept of openness on the way. Virtual and augmented reality have taken many years to break through and one factor behind mass market acceptance was reviving the Pokemon craze; the new in terms of something old. The challenge for any innovation is staying true to its original spirit and avoiding being tamed too much. However it's a delicate balance. If you're too innovative noone will accept you and if you adapt to the traditional too much you lose your innovative spark. Innovation through familiarity..

As the pace of innovation accelerates, human behavior, not technological restraints, will be the deciding factor of whether products are adopted or discarded. If new products and services are to positively impact our lives, they must find a gateway into our daily routines.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Expanding digital learning spaces

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
In my last post I wrote about how physical learning spaces are being redesigned so that the boundaries between formal and informal spaces becomes increasingly blurred. Spaces can quickly be transformed from social areas to a seminar venue and previously unexploited spaces such as corridors and entrance halls are now used for group work, private study or events. I love the idea of designing spaces to enable serendipitous learning; you're sitting drinking coffee when you hear that a short lecture is beginning a few metres away and you simply can't help listening and being drawn in. Similarly you may strike up a conversation with another coffee drinker and suddenly you find common interests. Admittedly spontaneous discussions between strangers are pretty rare but maybe if the environment is right.

If we can transform the physical spaces to foster socialising or learning then maybe we should examine the digital space. Can we offer a greater flexibility in digital spaces allowing people to mingle or set up discussion groups on the fly? There are lots of tools that already do this to some extent but each tool or platform is a silo relying on all your contacts being members. I often have problems arranging video meetings where some people lack an account with the tool being used or work for an organisation that blocks that particular tool. Do we really have a digital equivalent of the informal learning spaces now appearing on many campuses? Digital cafes, commons areas, squares and parks. I don't think we're there yet but in the last couple of weeks I've found a couple of interesting new digital spaces that promise some new dimensions.

The first is a new webinar tool called Shindig. This seems to raise the bar for more interactive and flexible webinars and I'm very curious to try it out. In a typical session you have 2-3 presenters who lead the webinar and they are seen in larger video windows at the top of the screen. The participants are represented by smaller video windows to form a visible audience in the bottom half of the screen. Each participants can quickly set up their audio and video and there are no downloads or add-ins to complicate things; everything works in your browser. Every participant can ask to speak and can then be invited on "stage" with their video window joining the speaker(s) at the top of the screen. This is possible in existing webinar tools but this seems so much simpler.

The point that excites me about Shindig is that the participants can gather in small groups and "mingle". If you see someone you know you can "sit" next to them and even start your own private video or audio session. Before a session starts this feature can allow for the sort of mingle that is often so interesting at conferences. Group work can easily be organised  by simply asking participants to discuss with their neighbours rather than the complicated procedures needed for breakout groups in existing webinar platforms. Add in features like the capacity to accommodate over 1000 participants, social media integration (live streaming on Facebook or YouTube), recording and the ability to open private chats with any participant and you can see why I am so enthusiastic (full list of features here). At present you can apply to arrange an event but the platform isn't yet available for purchase (I assume this will costs a bit). Have a look at the publicity film here.

Virtual worlds had a hype peak with the Second Life boom about 10 years ago but it never really became mainstream as many of us had hoped. However with the advance of virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) there are now plenty of new virtual worlds to build and explore, often superimposed on "real reality" like Pokemon Go and so on. One thing that has been lacking in VR applications is the opportunity to invite your friends to meet you in the virtual space and that's where Facebook's new VR application Facebook Spaces hopes to create a niche.

The idea is that when you're in your VR environment, maybe exploring a rain forest or the sights of a major city, you can invite some of your Facebook contacts to join you for a discussion. In the VR environment you should already have created an avatar but if your contact doesn't have an avatar they can appear as a video window instead. The key to this, as in Second Life, was that you could meet people in a particular environment and give a spatial and experiential aspect to the online meeting that is otherwise generally just a meeting of talking heads. You create a shared experience; "remember that time we met beside that amazing waterfall". read more on this in a review of Facebook Spaces on WiredFacebook’s Bizarre VR App Is Exactly Why Zuck Bought Oculus.

Facebook Spaces could be the next big thing or it could sink without a trace but the main point is that there is an increasing focus on making digital spaces more interactive. This can facilitate, say, socialisation and group work between campus and online students, two groups that up till now seldom interact. Many more tools will come and go but the trend towards integrating formal and informal digital learning spaces is clear. Watch this space.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lessons for sale

CC0 Public domain on Maxpixel
Although open educational resources have still not really gained mainstream status around the world there is a vast amount of quality resources available in numerous repositories with Creative Commons licenses allowing reuse and adaptation. I was therefore surprised to read an article in Education Week Teacher describing how teachers are making considerable amounts of money by selling their resources, Million-Dollar Teachers: Cashing In by Selling Their Lessons.

At sites like Teachers pay teachers, Teachwise and Teacher's notebook you can browse a wide range of lesson plans and resources and buy the ones you like the look of. Evidently the members of Teacher pay teachers have earned over $100 million and several have become millionaires from selling their teaching resources. Most of the resources cost very little and I assume most people only earn small amounts each year but some teachers have become major players offering an extensive range of resources as lesson or course packages.

Despite worries from some educators, such online marketplaces are booming, driven by rising standards and the willingness of teachers to pay out of their own pockets for classroom-tested materials.

What amazes me is that so many teachers are willing to pay to get resources that are probably comparable to those available completely free in OER repositories like OER Commons or This raises many questions that would be interesting to investigate. How do users of these commercial sites judge the quality of the resources and how does that differ from how they judge the quality of open resources? Many teachers are wary of OER simply because they find it hard to believe that something of value can be free and indeed one of the most commonly raised objections to openness is a perceived lack of quality assurance (even when it is present). Many international initiatives have been launched to define quality criteria for OER and there are several excellent reports available (eg State of the Art Review of Quality Issues related to Open Educational ResourcesQuality Assurance Guidelines for Open Educational Resources). Does payment somehow create a sense of quality and credibility? Certainly the incentive to earn a little extra from your work is attractive and maybe some kind of micro-payment system could entice more teachers to share resources. However as soon as a price tag is added you create a competitive market and barriers go up between teachers who are more focused on selling than sharing.

But Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says taking "proprietary rights over ideas and lessons" could disrupt the traditional collaborative atmosphere of schools. "You want teachers to collaborate and share ideas freely."

The article also raises the issue of whether teachers should be able to monetize their resources since in many countries the school, as employer, has copyright on material developed during working hours. Even in institutions that recognise the teachers as copyright holders it still seems strange that they can profit from selling material that they have developed as paid (and often public) employees.

I believe that education should be for the public good and as such should be open to all and not turned into a commercial market. Teaching should be about creating context, inspiring, challenging, questioning and mentoring, not simply producing content. We need to work harder to encourage open sharing of ideas and resources so that they benefit all levels of education and the whole spectrum of society. Sharing can lead to better use of resources, minimising the need to reinvent the wheel every day, and foster a community of practice among all teachers. This commercial development may be because so many teachers are completely unaware of the abundance of OER available but it could also be a sad backlash against openness. I hope it is not the latter.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Learning spaces - from monofunctional to multifunctional

Redesigning learning spaces is one of the hottest fields in education just now and I doubt if there are many institutions that are not planning some kind of makeover to their campus in the near future. The almost ubiquitous use of educational technology together with the transition from teacher-centered content delivery to active collaborative learning require a major rethink of how the institution uses its campus space and also how the digital campus can be realised. A couple of weeks ago I attended and spoke at a conference in London on this theme, Next Generation Learning Spaces. There were many inspiring projects in the programme, though of course only a small selection of what is taking place globally. Although my focus was on how we can redesign the digital spaces to facilitate collaboration and reduce feelings of distance (see my presentation slides), I would like to present some of the most interesting aspects of campus redesign that were presented.

Reviving "dead" spaces
One speaker reminded us that today's designs are creating a legacy for the future and that we have to be careful not to let today's inspired design become tomorrow's headache. One legacy from the sixties and seventies that we are trying to deal with today is the problem of how to revive all the dead spaces around the campus: long corridors, concrete squares, dull entrance halls etc. These are spaces that people simply pass through as quickly as possible but could be exploited with a little imagination.

One impressive initiative was the Creative Campus project at the University of Kent that studied how students used formal and informal spaces on campus. Students were invited to propose solutions to revive these dead spaces in innovative ways. These solutions included transforming enclosed corridors into a cafe study area with colourful furnishings designed for group work and with a solid wall being replaced by glass panels that could be opened in the summer onto a patio area (see example). Drop-down screens make it possible to run semi-formal seminars. The furniture is multi-purpose; you can quickly build a stage with it or the tables can be turned on end to become poster boards for exhibitions of student work. Another solution was to make use of the parkland around the campus to include outdoor classrooms and a theatre and these can now be booked in the university system just like any other teaching space (see example). This was an excellent example of students making their mark on the campus and some of them went on to starting their own companies as a result.

A presentation of how a large, dark and unused basement area at Edinburgh University has recently been transformed into a lively and popular learning space was of particular interest to me. As an Edinburgh student back in the seventies I remember that exact area in its most uninspiring period and can vouch for the fact that you didn't want to hang around there. See what it looks like now.

From monofunctional to multifunctional
Another clear trend was the move towards multifunctionality, where all spaces can be used for many different activities rather than having dedicated lecture halls, classrooms or computer labs. This requires close collaboration between design teams, staff and students to ensure all needs are covered. At the University of Glasgow students and teachers are involved in the design process, testing new furniture, equipment and spaces at showcase events. They can try out the new designs, work in them, move the furniture around and generally get a feeling of what works and what doesn't work. 

The Manchester Engineering Campus Development (MECD) project at Manchester University mixes and integrates teaching and workshop spaces. A larger workshop area includes areas that can quickly be turned into a temporary teaching spaces using screens and flexible furniture. Teaching and practical work are thus integrated and students can move naturally from one to the other without changing rooms. They have also built a blended lecture theatre which adjoins a café and group rooms. For some lectures or events the screens could be rolled back allowing the people in the cafe to eavesdrop on to the event and the lecture hall also had a large window out to the street where passers-by might notice what was going on and be tempted to come inside. This would seem perfect for lunch seminars and allows serendipitous learning. The central entrance hall was also designed for easy conversion into a conference venue or a graduation ceremony where the stairs and balcony areas can be used as seating accommodation. 

At the Said Business School, University of Oxford, they are converting a derelict power station into a custom business school (see Osney Power Station Development). Here the idea is to think of campus spaces as film sets that can be transformed by moving in a variety of props and that all spaces can be used in a number of ways. By allowing this multifunctionality we may be ensuring that the legacy of today's developments does not become a headache for tomorrow. A further example of multifunctionality is the University of Sheffield's Diamond building. Here local schools were able to book the university facilities and meet faculty and there seems to be an increase in this sort of outreach with more integration between educational sectors. One speaker summed up the design process as making what you do fit the building and make the building fit what you do.

Breaking the vicious circle
At the University of Leuven in Belgium they are working to bridge the gap between pedagogical and learning space development so the two areas can develop in tandem instead of in conflict or mutual misunderstanding. Two internal projects, ALINA and TECOL (Technology Enhanced Collaborative Learning) have been formed to break this vicious circle:

the lack of use of innovative teaching practices reduces the demand for new and flexible rooms, which reinforces the traditional habits of teachers.

Teachers need training and support to see how new types of learning spaces and digital media can offer a wider spectrum of teaching strategies and that the development of new learning spaces must go hand in hand with pedagogical development.

In order to stimulate teaching and management staff, ALINA is developing a model and an accompanying tool. This tool could assist teachers in choosing the right learning space for their didactic method and vice-versa. Therefore the application will be able to provide manuals to a broad range of learning methods who will be linked to specific features available in certain learning spaces. For management staff, the tool can help to develop a consistent policy about learning spaces by collecting data on the needs of teachers and the available learning spaces.

Finally I can warmly recommend the newly published UK HE Learning Space Toolkit that has been produced by UCISA (Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association) and several other UK associations. Here you can find plenty of inspiration and practical advice for all types of redesign projects.

The overall message is clear; a shift from specialised spaces to generic, multifunctional and informal spaces. However changing the physical learning environment on campus is only one aspect of the problem, though it is the most noticeable one. A rapidly growing number of students are learning in off-campus spaces and how good is the digital campus that we offer them?. We need to link together many different learning spaces, organisations and communities, including workplaces and schools. That aspect gets very little investment compared to the physical spaces and it's time to include the digital campus in the overall discussion. 

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!

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

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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 René 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?