Friday, September 27, 2013

Connected learners need connected teachers

Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano creates some excellent presentations and here's a new one dealing with the need for teachers to become globally connected. Read also her related blog post, Global learning - what do you mean?

It's a simple message but for some reason it is taking a long time to reach all parts of the education system. If students are going to succeed in a global knowledge society they need teachers who are able to guide them. Assuming that students are digital natives and don't need support with digital literacy is resigning responsibility. Using today's social media and net-based tools require very little, if any, technical expertise; often much simpler than using the average washing machine or TV set.

We need to move away from seeing digital media as mysterious technology only for the initiated, to integrating them into education as natural communication tools. Maybe we need to stop calling it all technology because doing so gives many an escape clause: "I'm a teacher not a technician".
In the past when computers were deskbound and clumsy there were legitimate fears that students would be pacified in front of screens all day but today's "technology" is mobile and ubiquitous. Learning can take place anywhere rather than being confined to the classroom. But first we need to learn how to connect.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Shop window MOOCs

Festival Walk Shopping mall Hong Kong by dcmaster, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by dcmaster

There have been plenty metaphors for the MOOC movement; some very apt, some rather exaggerated and a few downright silly. An article by Martin Weller about the launch of the UK MOOC consortium FutureLearn, FutureLearn & The Role Of MOOCs, defines MOOCs as a shop window for higher education in a similar way as open educational resources. They offer millions a chance to learn from top universities and will stimulate an interest in learning and a thirst for more. They're not going to smash the system but will settle into a necessary and worthwhile niche once the hype dust has settled.

"The MOOC hype is settling down now, and I feel that FutureLearn is really an indication of what it may well end up being. Forget the "end of universities as we know them" rhetoric, ignore the "all education will be this way one day" commercial wet dream - MOOCs will be as OERs. And that's a good thing. OERs are now available from providers all over the globe, they make a big difference to the way many people work. But they haven't really fundamentally changed what we do in education, they've allowed new models and enhanced others."

MOOCs should be seen rather as marketing campaigns that benefit both the university and the thousands of learners who will study them. The success of a marketing campaign is decided by how many people that are more attracted to your institution as a result, not by the number who didn't react. MOOCs are not competing with regular courses, they are marketing the benefits of education. It's essential that they are well designed and offer a quality educational experience but the number of learners who complete such courses is not particularly relevant to judging their worth.

Weller's closing remarks are spot on:

"If a million learners every year get to experience some good online teaching material, and a smallish percentage of these then go on to study other MOOCs, or enter formal education, that's a positive outcome for universities, society and the individual learners. It probably isn't a model that will get venture capitalists excited though."

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Learning to deal with free - don't put all your eggs in the same basket

We often hear that if you don't pay for something then you are the product, especially in connection with social media and cloud computing. Companies offer attractive services for free in return for information about ourselves that can then be used for targeted advertising or to tempt us into buying a more advanced version of the service (so called freemium). However there's nothing new with this concept. We've had many years of commercial radio and TV who offer their services "free" and the cost is being subjected to sometimes rather intense advertising. Many magazines which we pay good money for are over 50% pure advertising and many of the articles are slightly more discrete lifestyle advertising. Most of us have loyalty cards that give us discount at the cost of giving the company information about every purchase we make. Read more on this in an article from 2012, Stop Saying 'If You're Not Paying, You're The Product'.

The concept of free raises a lot of integrity issues, especially when cloud services are used in an educational context. An article in Inside Higher EdTeaching Ethically with the Free Web, raises many relevant questions about using services like Google Apps, Facebook, Dropbox, WordPress and iCloud in schools and colleges. Many of these are excellent for collaborative writing, discussion, project work and reflection and are more user-friendly and attractive than more closed environments such as learning management systems. However they all have different policies for privacy and ownership of content and each has to be examined and discussed. Another issue is that some are not compatible with tools that improve accessibility for those with visual impairments.

However the article advises teachers to become more aware of the implications of using open services and discussing them with their students. For example the documents you store on a cloud service are probably your own intellectual property but the information you put in your profile is probably not. Becoming aware of the conditions is the first step to taking control of your digital footprint and this is an essential classroom discussion that needs to be repeated and refined over the years. The article offers the following practical advice to teachers working with cloud services and social media.
  • Inform ourselves about the technologies we are using with students and our responsibilities as their teachers—both legally according to FERPA and ethically according to our beliefs and our students’ best interests. To that end, I’ve provided links to the policy and privacy statements of all of the apps and technologies mentioned in this post in the fact box above.
  • Engage our students in conversations about whatever apps or technologies we will be using in our courses, including conversations about what will be done with their personal information or content.
  • Offer options whenever possible as alternatives to particular web services. This gets tricky when using reminder or organizational applications, but you can always use multiple reminder services (Twitter and Remind101, for example) to keep students up-to-date on changes to the syllabus, or give groups options for online collaboration when they are completing collaborative projects.
The advantages of using free social media and cloud-based services are too many to simply ignore but we need to be aware of the conditions and actively discuss the issues when using them in teaching. And don't put all the eggs in the same basket.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

MOOCs - more glacier than tsunami

About a year ago Stanford University president John L. Hennessy made a much publicized presentation comparing MOOCs to a tsunami about to hit higher education. It certainly intensified the discussion of online learning and helped to put MOOCs on the front pages of some glossy publications. However one year later and we maybe should change the metaphor. Although the various MOOC players have made a dramatic impact on the educational landscape I don't see the wave sweeping away any campuses just yet. No ivory towers have crashed down and curiously the most active proponents of MOOCs are those universities with the most ivory towers to defend.

Maybe MOOCs are part of an educational glacier that will eventually lead to radical changes but as a slow grind rather than a massive impact. In that case the MOOC is simply one of many concepts that will be tested and developed as the glacier grinds over the landscape. Although I often compare what's happening to education with changes in publishing or the music industry there are fundamental differences. An article by Jonathan Tapson, MOOCs and the Gartner Hype Cycle: A very slow tsunami, points out that choosing to download an album instead of buying it in a shop is an undramatic and instant decision and meant that the music industry changed radically in a very short period. Education however is a major life decision and students are unlikely to opt for new options until they offer a recognized and proven improvement on the traditional model.

"Undertaking a university degree is not an impulse purchase, like a book, or a song, or a newspaper; even a periodical or cable TV subscription only lasts a year or two, and involves moderate cost and no time commitment. A traditional university degree is a minimum three-year, whole-of-life experience, which results in a career-defining outcome and a mountain of debt, or cash spent, or some equivalent outlay. Not entirely unlike getting married, in fact."

For students today MOOCs are not an alternative to college and they are unlikely to be that for several years. Most colleges will continue with business as usual for many years but slowly the alternatives will become more serious and appealing to an increasing number of students. The article projects that the real effects of this change will not really be felt until around 2023, quoting Bill Gates, “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”

There's a lot happening in education today and MOOCs are just one of many important new elements being experimented with. They're all part of the glacier but I don't believe that one element will lead to real change. The MOOC concept will fade into something else and we'll see plenty of tsunami scares before we finally realize that change is more organic and less dramatic but the effects will be radical.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Can Apple kill passwords?

I hate passwords! I have dozens of them and if it wasn't for my devices automatically remembering them I'd be locked out of everything. I've tried to follow the standard advice of sticking to a certain formula but then there are several services that insist I change password every month and will not accept any old ones. The worst ones are services I only use now and then, like 2-3 times a year. I nearly always have to ask for a new password. Worst case scenario is when I can't remember my user name either. I know there are alternatives including apps that remember everything for you but I still haven't got round to them. Other technical solutions so far have had too many ifs and buts to threaten the dominance of the password.

My hopes have been raised however by Apple's move to include fingerprint ID detection in the new iPhone as described in a BBC article, Could iPhone's fingerprint sensor help kill off passwords? Biometrics has been toted for at least 15 years now but have never really found the killer application. Inclusion in the iPhone could well lead to mainstream acceptance. It's not foolproof, nothing is, but the article suggests that future ID authentication will involve multiple checks on say fingerprint, iris, voice and even pulse. The future may well build upon your body as your ID and not a combination of symbols.

The impact of more secure identification control on education is clear. An often discussed weakness in online assessment and examination is ID control and the use of biometrics with mobile devices could clear up many of these concerns. For now, however, we still have to remember those irritating passwords.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rockstar keynotes

One of the most prolific keynote speakers at educational conferences in recent years has been George Siemens of Athabasca University in Canada. As the founder of connectivism and one of the pioneers of the MOOC movement his research and practical experience in the pedagogical use of educational technology has made him one of the most sought-after keynote speakers on the international circuit. His air miles total for the past 5 years must be mighty impressive.

In a new blog post however he has announced his retiral from the conference limelight, Done doing keynotes. He understandably wants to return to teaching and research and contribute to the educational discussions from that perspective rather than from the spotlight of the conference stage. An excellent example of knowing when to step back.

One paragraph in the post caught my eye in particular. Keynote speakers in education are gaining rockstar status and that creates an uncomfortable tension.

"I’ve long held that once something becomes routine, rather than innovative and challenging, that it is time to rethink what I’m doing. Additionally, there has been growing creep of “rockstar-ism” in education where we look for “the person” to give us “the solution”. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the view that the answer can be brought to us by someone outside of our system. This view is appealing but completely false. I’ve answered many questions from audience members with “I don’t know” and “that depends”. People seem to find this unsatisfying. We like our so-called rock stars in the education and technology field. We like clear answers. And it’s not healthy for us or for our field."

Of course the role of a keynote speaker is to challenge, inspire and create a buzz in the conference hall that will then permeate the rest of the sessions. However there is the risk that Siemens states that we expect them to have all the answers. I experienced this first hand in the summer when I attended the EDEN (European Distance and E.-learning Network) conference in Oslo. Two of the most prominent keynotes in the business, Sir Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra, were appearing (Robinson via videolink from Los Angeles) and the buzz in the hall before the performance really felt like a rock concert. They are both inspirational and polished performers who challenge many fundamental beliefs about education and are naturally excellent at getting a conference off to a flying start. However I got a strong sense of the rockstar-ism that Siemens mentions in his post as we all laughed at the jokes and enjoyed the keynote ride as we would if our musical heroes were performing their greatest hits. No disrespect to the speakers, it's more our own need for figureheads and gurus who can provide the answers we seek.

The answers are within us rather than on the conference stage.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The silent majority - why are MOOC forums counterproductive?

The discussion forum is a central feature of all learning management systems and the focus for most online courses. Often it's the only interactive feature in the course but it's notoriously difficult to generate real discussion there. Too few participants and it will probably never take off. Too many and it becomes chaotic. In many cases students only post in the forum because there are credits at stake and very often the real discussion takes place elsewhere; on Facebook or Google Hangouts for example.

So if the forums of regular online courses are difficult to run effectively they will prove almost impossible in a MOOC with potentially tens of thousands of participants. Nonetheless most MOOCs persist with them as a token attempt at interaction or because the forum is somehow a default setting in online learning. Generally MOOC forums become overwhelming and chaotic with hundreds of unrelated threads and the vast majority of participants take one look and never return. An article in Campus Technology, Building a Sense of Community in MOOCs, reinforces this impression that forums are actually counter-productive:

"Ironically, the biggest obstacle preventing MOOC students from forming relationships is the feature most relied on to encourage them."

A dynamic forum is like gathering people in a room and asking them to discuss. A class of say 30 will divide into smaller groups and it is easy to move over to a new group when you want to. There's a clear structure to the interactions and it's easy to get an overview. However if you add a few thousand strangers into the mix it gets completely chaotic and effective communication is likely to break down. Some forums are dominated by so-called super posters, students who can be responsible for up to 25% of a forums total posts (see report on a recent Stanford University survey in eCampus News Sept 2013 p6). Their enthusiasm might inspire a few but will intimidate less confident participants. The same survey shows that only one in ten students posted more than once in MOOC forums and the vast majority wrote absolutely nothing. A major factor to the inactivity is that most people are simply not used to online discussion and see learning as an information transfer from teacher to student. Media literacy is a clear issue here.

Another problem I have noticed in MOOC forums is the presence of expert participants. Many teachers and researchers are taking MOOCs out of curiosity and as a way to expand their professional networks. Very valid reasons and I am guilty as charged. However the danger of having over-qualified participants is that their contributions to the discussions can set an impossibly high standard that can intimidate the new learners. There are also MOOCs which are also regular for-credit courses mixing full-time campus students with thousands of MOOCers. The regular students will inevitably set the tone of the discussion. Maybe these two groups should somehow be kept apart since they have such widely different motives for participating. They can inspire and motivate each other but I suspect they can also intimidate, irritate and confuse. I'd be very interested in reading any research on this issue.

So if a massive anarchic forum is not the way to encourage meaningful discussion in a MOOC, what is? The Campus Technology article lists a number of examples. One way is to encourage small-scale groups using whatever networking tool is most appropriate for the participants, such as a Facebook group. Basically break up the massive crowd into friendly neighbourhoods. Another way is to create focused interactions such as a question and answer session with a tutor where the structure is clear and within a given time frame.

"So instead of trying to force a free-flowing conversation in the live session, Greene and her colleagues took advantage of students' eagerness to pose questions in the forums. "The second week, we ran a question-and-answer session with topics we had prepared," she explains, "formed by what was coming up on the [forum] thread." The blend helped students feel like participants in the live session without being pressured to interact with the experts on the spot."

Interestingly many MOOCs are using synchronous online meetings as an effective discussion area where a teacher meets with a limited number of students to deal with questions using for example Google Hangouts. These are also situations that most participants will feel comfortable with reflecting traditional classroom practice that all are familiar with.

There is of course no patented answer to this problem but maybe we should think at least twice before launching a MOOC with a common discussion forum in the middle. Maybe that's the one element we should drop.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

MOOC limitations

We often hear claims that MOOCs will make top class higher education available to the whole world and that they will democratize higher education. This is true to some extent but a new article on E-learning Africa puts these ambitious claims into perspective: The underlying inequality of MOOCs. For many learners in the world the MOOCs are still inaccessible due to lack of infrastructure. Although there are numerous educational technology initiatives in developing countries the reality for most is that access to online learning is still a dream.

"There are a variety of mitigating factors that limit access to MOOCs, many of which are the same as those that also exclude disadvantaged groups from traditional educational models and stem from financial, geographical and educational disparity. In practical terms, sustained participation in a MOOC requires a set of resources and infrastructure that is a privilege, as many of us ... often forget. A reliable electricity supply, frequent and uninterrupted access to a device capable of going online and playing video and sound, and a secure, unrestricted Internet connection are essential starting blocks – as is a safe and comfortable space in which to learn."

Then there is the simple lack of time to study with long working days, family duties and chores that we in developed countries take for granted but that can take much longer to do in less developed countries. When you have to work 12 hours a day to keep going when do you have time to study? Our increasing interest in informal learning depends on us having significant leisure time to pursue such activities.

In addition to this is the fact that online learning requires advanced study skills, digital literacy and a high level of self-discipline that most people lack, even in affluent countries. The key to levelling the educational playing field is teaching people how to learn.

"A “basic level of education and the ability to study” spans everything from essential literacy and numeracy to self-motivation, being able to pursue independent research and practice of writing academic papers. Learners without these skills, let alone the foundation knowledge required to follow a university level course, will no doubt struggle to remain engaged."

Until these elements are in place the promise of open online learning (whatever acronym it goes under) will remain elusive for the vast majority. We have still a lot of work to do.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

What do employers want from graduates?

CC BY-NC-ND Some rights reserved by Nuwandalice
How important are qualifications in today's labour market? According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher EducationGiving Employers What They Don't Really Want, there's a mismatch between what educators believe and the answers given by industry representatives. Not surprisingly educators believe that employers look first at academic credentials whereas the employers clearly state that they're looking more at relevant skills, practical experience and personality. These are the findings of a new study from the Association of American Colleges and UniversitieIt Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. The employers questioned in the survey are looking for applicants who are innovative and analytic with high levels of critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. Furthermore they were positive to graduates with a broad range of knowledge and skills; a 21st century liberal education. Despite strong rumours to the contrary the generalist graduate is clearly not dead.

So employers are looking for evidence of your practical skills, preferably combining academic studies with hands-on workplace projects. Your collection of diplomas and certificates are of much less value than proven track record in concrete workplace projects and soft skills. This is nothing new of course and it's not always the candidate with the impressive certificates that gets the job - it's usually the one who shows the right communication skills in the interview and can offer the most relevant experience. An article in the Huffington Post, Why You Shouldn't Have 'Education' at the Top of Your Resume, confirms this trend that relevant skills and practical experience should come at the top of any resume.

"If you begin your resume with 'Education,' you sacrifice coveted space to, frankly, the least interesting part of your bio. Then, the employer looks up from your piece of paper and says, "OK, so what do you know how to do?"
We are entrenched in a skills-based economy, and what really counts are your abilities. It doesn't matter if you learned them at college, an internship, a full-time job or while babysitting your neighbor's kids.
Skills. Skills. Skills."

A degree is of course still important but what gets you employed is being able to show what you can do with it all. This is where the adoption of skills based badges, like the current Open Badges initiative, could well be a major breakthrough. Badges can be awarded for practical skills and workplace experience and provide credible credentials for informal learning. This can provide a complement to formal certification. Your degree shows a certain level of academic ability whereas your badge collection provides an employer with credible evidence of more practical skills.