Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Echoes of content

glass, white and blue by wdj(0), on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by wdj(0)

Today I had an interesting discussion with a colleague who questioned the value of sharing and curation in education. We were discussing social media tools to be used in a new project and as usual the discussion was a lively comparison of the pros and cons of various tools: discussion in Facebook, curation in Scoopit, link lists in Diigo, Twitter for links and tips, Slideshare for presentations, YouTube for films etc etc. Many of us find this digital diversity perfectly natural but it's always valuable to meet the child who has noticed that the emperor has no clothes on. Are we all so busy sharing that we don't stop to wonder if anyone is listening?

Educators create mountains of learning resources and an increasing number are sharing them as OER but only a tiny amount of this is ever used by anyone else. There seems to be a barrier about using someone else's teaching material, perhaps the inner voice that tells us that we're being in some way "lazy". Often the resource you find is great apart from one small but crucial detail; a culture-specific reference, irrelevant details, wrong style etc. So in the end you need to create your own version and so yet another resource gets stored on a server somewhere. We're all busy filling the world's servers with information yet only a fraction of it is seen by more than a handful of people, if that. Even scientific research disappears quickly into the digital mist as the number of theses and journal articles increases at an alarming rate. As the mountain of titles rises the chances of anyone reading your efforts diminish.

On top of this there is all the time spent sharing these resources via Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Scoopit and many, many more. Here we're not creating anything new, simply creating echoes of someone else's content. We curate pages full of interesting links either individually or with colleagues in a team or project. These can be very useful for your group but I wonder how much further they reach, given the sheer volume of similar resources. So everyone is busy curating, compiling, tweeting, retweeting, sharing and tagging but is anyone listening or is all this a gigantic digital echo-chamber? The intentions are admirable but when everyone is sharing they're too busy to see what others are doing. Before you create another channel, resource, news feed or suchlike it might be good to look around to see if someone else is already doing just this and maybe not bother adding more echoes to the already high volume of digital noise.

As an enthusiastic blogger, curator, tweeter etc who believes in the benefits of sharing knowledge and resources, this discussion disturbed me a little at first. Of course all this openness, sharing and transparency is a good thing! But the more I think of it the more I realise that we need to discuss ways of encouraging digital recycling, reducing background noise and maybe choosing not to add new resources unless absolutely necessary. Just as the physical world is producing more products than can be consumed, we're producing more digital content than can be used.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Bursting the MOOC bubble

After a couple of years basking in the spotlight the tide seems to have turned in MOOCland and we seem to be heading for the dreaded trough of disillusionment (now that's what I call a metaphor-rich opening!).

Diana Laurillard, Five myths about Moocsbursts some of the inflated claims made about MOOCs in recent months. The main point is that education is not mass production. MOOCs offer a well-designed content package for self-study but providing thousands of students with qualified guidance and facilitation simply does not scale. Many MOOC providers are experimenting with peer learning, encouraging participants to give feedback to each other and assess each other's work. While it is true that more experienced students are able to provide competent peer review and assessment, this is not true of inexperienced learners unused to both higher education and the online environment. Students are not as self-sufficient as we sometimes imagine. In reply to this it could be argued that many undergraduate campus courses are not so good at providing qualified feedback and face-to-face tuition. All higher education requires the student to be highly self-sufficient and success depends very much on developing good peer networks for discussion and feedback. MOOCs of course take this self-sufficiency to an extreme. However as the focus in education moves towards learning how to learn I believe we will certainly see future generations becoming more self-sufficient and better at peer learning. We aren't there yet but that movement has already started.

"The simple fact is that a course format that copes with large numbers by relying on peer support and assessment is not an undergraduate education. Education is not a mass customer industry: it is a personal client industry. The significant initial investment required in the preparation of educational resources can be distributed over very large student numbers and repeated runs of the course, but education is fundamentally about learning concepts and skills that we do not acquire naturally through our normal interaction with the world. And this takes time. It requires personalised guidance, which is simply not scalable in the same way. This is what the private educational sector continues to ignore, and it is why every new idea for solving the problem of mass education with technology falls flat."

Then there are the claims that MOOCs are going to solve the problems of expensive undergraduate education or educational scarcity in emerging economies. This myth is already exposed as studies show that the vast majority of MOOCers are graduates and only a tiny minority live in developing countries. However, just as I agree that we should expose some of the wilder claims around the MOOC phenomenon we have no idea as yet where this movement is taking us. As I've written many times, it's time to discard the term MOOC and look at what openness (in many different shades) can offer education and learning. MOOCs are simply one of many experiments in the development of using technology to widen access to education. No one model is going to solve these problems but many variations on the theme may well lead to opening up education. It's a glacial change not a tsunami and don't expect miracles overnight.

Martin Weller's article, The Dangerous Appeal Of The Silicon Valley Narrative, discusses how the the media and many educators locked on to the appealing idea that education was broken and that it could only be saved by radical change lead by innovative entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. This was the narrative behind the explosion of xMOOCs that began with the Stanford Artificial Intelligence course back in 2011 and which hogged the media spotlight at the cost of more low-profile but much more innovative projects within the education community like Peer2Peer University, OER university and all the connectivist MOOCs.

"This analysis also reveals why other open education initiatives haven’t garnered as much attention. They often seek to supplement or complement education, thus ruining the education is broken argument. Similarly, they are often conducted by those who work in higher education, which undermines the narrative of external agents promoting change on a sector that is out of touch. And lastly, they are supported by not-for-profit institutions, which does not fit the model of new, disruptive businesses emerging."

So where are we today? I see this year as the year when the MOOC as a concept melts into something else as the hype-seekers move on. The MOOCs will keep on coming but the rhetoric will change and they will find a place in the educational eco-system. They are after all simply one part of a longer evolutionary process. What is clear is that there will be a wide range of paths to learning; some very traditional, some radical and experimental and others on a scale between the two. The problems occur when we start comparing apples with pears and claim that the new will sweep away the old. The new will complement the old and offer more choice and new opportunities that will benefit more people than the present system does.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Living in your calendar

Have you got a to-do list that hangs over you like the sword of Damocles with all those tasks that you really should be attending to? I have both an app in my laptop and mobile as well as a paper notebook on my desk that remind me every day of all those nasty tasks that I somehow still take ages to get round to. I can set myself deadlines but it's equally easy to shift the deadlines when I don't like them. I've tried several types of to-do lists over the years but have never really warmed to any of them. They're simply not much fun, in sharp contrast to so many other apps that beg for my attention daily on my devices. I don't think they make me any more productive either.

So what's the answer to becoming super-productive? An article in Harvard Business Review, To-Do Lists Don't Work, offers the humble calendar as a solution. Instead of writing deadlines and reminders in your to-do list, you schedule a time slot in your calendar where you dedicate time to get the task done. Don't let that dreaded task hang over you for weeks, book 2 hours on Wednesday and devote that time to getting it done. One problem with to-do lists is that we tend to overload them and when we see such a long list the natural reaction is one of paralysis and we end up achieving even less. Your calendar has a very limited number of slots in the coming weeks and that means that you have to deal with a realistic workload instead of overloading yourself with false expectations.

"It’s an eye-opening exercise: you’ll probably find that it’s tough — if not impossible — to find a place for everything. But this is the reality of your life. You’ve simply used the calendar to paint a true picture of the time commitments you have on your plate. And whether or not you make these commitments visible, they’re there. After all, if you’re going to be run over by a truck, you might as well get its license plate."

It sounds convincing. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who works this way.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Don't fence me in

I have quite a number of friends on Facebook but only a few of them ever show up in my news feed. I used to think that maybe they weren't so active but now I suspect that they are simply filtered out. A video (see below) by Derek Muller of Veritasium, an educational science channel on YouTube, featured in an article on the Huffington Post, Nobody 'Likes' Your Status Updates Any More? Blame Facebook, explains how Facebook is increasingly filtering what we see. Muller explains how we only see a fraction of what our friends post and that some friends never show up at all. Basically each one of us is an advertiser on Facebook and we are marketing ourselves. As a result we might be interested in paying for increased exposure. You can already pay to boost the impact of particular posts and although this applies mostly to companies and organisations a likely development, according to Muller, is that we too may have to pay extra to make sure our updates reach most of our friends out there. As Facebook, like all social media, tries to find new ways of monetizing their service it's not surprising that you may have to pay for maximum impact, even if Muller is highly critical of this tactic in the film. So we live in a kind of bubble in Facebook with a select band of faithful friends selected not so much by us but by an algorithm at Facebook. Read a reaction to Muller's film in Business InsiderBlogger Nails A Major Problem With Facebook's Newsfeed.

There has been similar criticism of Google cocooning us in a comfort bubble due to personalised search results. As Google learns your preferences it searches for sites that you have previously used and as time goes on you will get results that are customised to your preferences. That explains why my own blog posts always feature prominently when I search for something via Google (I bet they don't show up in your searches!). This creates a false bubble that could lead me to believe that my opinions are shared by the world and means that I am seldom exposed to ideas that are radically different from mine.

Personalisation sounds great but when it leads to a bubble culture it becomes rather dangerous. We develop tools that help us distill the vast reserves of raw data there will be increasingly sophisticated levels of personalisation. Learning analytics appears in most predictions of the next big thing in education and undoubtedly our devices will be able to lead us to learning resources that match our preferences and interests. The problem with all this is that it lacks serendipity and often real learning occurs when you meet the unexpected and have to deal with answers that question your thinking.

I don't want to be herded into personalised bubbles, no matter how convenient and comfy they may be. I want to have the option to switch off the bubble and see all my Facebook friends' updates now and again (well, minus the Farmville updates!). Let me choose if I want appropriate learning resources chosen for me or whether I want to take pot luck out there in the wild west of the web.

Will my plea be heard? No chance, I fear, but at least I've asked.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A global perspective on online learning

globe by Judy **, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by Judy **

The sheer volume of writing in the field of educational technology and online learning is almost overwhelming; theses, articles, blogs, magazines, e-books, films, lectures. However one missing element so far has been reliable and regular global statistics. There are plenty of national surveys but nothing that takes a global perspective and provides a statistical base for researchers and educators. With the current media focus on open education and MOOCs and the resultant risk for hype and optimistic estimates it is essential to establish a sound statistical baseline.

That's why this week's announcement from ICDE (International Council for Open and Distance Learning), launching a Global Online Higher Education Report was welcomed by many. The aim is to produce a survey of online learning featuring statistics, strategies, attitudes and trends. The report is to be compiled by ICDE in partnership with UNESCO, the European Commission, the International Association of Universities, the Sloan Consortium, StudyPortals and Babson Survey Research Group.

Although there is clear evidence of the growth of online learning, the global data remains anecdotal or limited in scope. There has been no formal effort or process to define online learning in the global context, to document levels of participation, the importance of online learning in institutional strategies or the policy implications for online learning. The Global Online Higher Education Report, (GlobalOHER) initiative is designed to address this deficiency by conducting a global survey and issuing a report that will provide:
  • Information on enrolments and programmes offered online 
  • Information on the role of MOOCs around the world 
  • Information on the adoption of Open Education Resources, OER 
  • Perspectives on the importance of online learning in institutional strategies 
  • The challenges institutions face in delivering high quality programmes and services 
  • A framework of the policy issues that institutions believe need to be addressed
They hope to include information from the world's higher education institutions or at least the majority of them, a formidable task but with such a strong partnership, not unrealistic. The first report is due later this year and will be published openly with a Creative Commons license in a number of formats to ensure the widest dissemination. The report will then be updated twice a year providing researchers with invaluable information and trend indicators.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Horizon 2014

One of the highlights of the edtech year is the release of the annual NMC Horizon Report with its predictions on the most important trends in educational technology for the coming years. We don't need to wait in suspense for this year's report because NMC (New Media Consortium) have already released a preview report listing the key trends and challenges facing higher education: NMC Horizon Report - 2014 Higher Education Preview. This preview gives a summary of the main findings in the report but does not provide all the excellent examples and case studies that the final report provides.

Here are the trends they see in the usual classification of short-term, medium-term and long-term. I have added some comments of my own on each point.

Fast moving trends (1-2 years)
  • Online, hybrid, and collaborative learning
    This refers to the integration of online and classroom learning where students are able to combine online collaboration and face-to-face instruction. Often referred to as hybrid or blended learning this is already a reality at many institutions where online is default in all courses. However what is often missing is systematic quality assurance to ensure that technology is implemented in a strategic and consistent manner. This is a trend that I see coming to the fore in the next couple of years, integrating technology use into mainstream quality assurance systems for higher education.
  • Social media use in learning
    This is no real surprise either since educators and students have been using social media for years but the issue here is that social media are now gaining mainstream acceptance and have gained credibility in the academic world. We can expect to see social media used more naturally in education and only by the pioneers.
Mid-range trends (3-5 years)
  • The creator society
    Teachers and students are increasingly creating their own learning resources in the form of videos, e-books, Wikipedia entries, podcasts etc. Creating such resources is a powerful learning process and moves the focus from content consumption (reading textbooks, listening to lectures) to content creation and co-creation.
  • Data-driven learning and assessment
    Learning analytics has been on the Horizon list for a few years now though has now changed name. Data is the new oil and we are now learning how to refine the raw data and develop tools to help us find the right educational resources that will be adapted to our learning preferences. Giants like Google, Facebook and Apple are hot on the trail and many speculate that MOOC consortia like Coursera are hoping to develop powerful tools that can exploit the vast archive of student data they have already acquired.
Slow trends (5 years and beyond)
  • Agile approaches to change
    The Lean movement is already well established in industry along with the concept of agile development. It's all about leading innovative organisations that are flexible and can react quickly to change. This is not something we generally associate with higher education to say the least. Does this mean universities functioning like Silicon Valley startups? I'm doubtful on this one but look forward to reading the full report's analysis.
  • Making online learning natural
    This is about integrating more natural communication into online learning by using more audio and video rather than the present text-only learning environments. I can already see this trend in progress with teachers giving feedback by audio or video and asynchronous video/audio discussion forums using tools like VoiceThread. Most learning management systems also offer voice or video communication options that are becoming increasingly attractive but it is taking time for educators and students to actually start using them. I don't see this trend on the long-term list, rather medium-term.
The report also highlights a number of significant challenges impeding ed tech adoption in higher education and these make all too familiar reading though all are well worth repeating and emphasizing. Teachers' low level of digital fluency and the lack of rewards for good teaching are placed on the list of factors that demand urgent attention. Linked to this is the problem of scaling up teaching innovations. Many teachers are innovative but how can this energy be transformed into new practice at institutional level?

One common thread I notice is that educational technology is finally moving into the mainstream of education but urgent work is needed to revise quality assurance systems to embrace technology integration and to develop faculty digital skills. The final NMC Horizon report should not just be read by the ed tech specialists but needs to be on the desks of all educational decision makers.

Read also David Hopkins' post on the Horizon preview on the University of Leicester staff blog.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Start the year with a MOOC

So many MOOCs by mksmith23, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by mksmith23

In my previous post I wondered if we have overrated the impact of MOOCs and that although they have been massively hyped in educational circles they haven't really made a significant impact on the world outside. This sentiment is echoed in an article on Open Culture, 180 MOOCs to Start the New Year (Is This the Crest of the Wave?). They have compiled an excellent list of all the MOOCs starting in the next couple of months but urge readers to make the most of this bounty while it lasts.

If you haven’t tried a free MOOC, I’d do it sooner than later. In recent weeks, the whole MOOC project took a hit when a University of Pennsylvania study found what was becoming empirically obvious — that MOOCs generally have very low participation and completion rates, and what’s more, most of the students taking the courses are “disproportionately educated, male, [and] wealthy,” and from the United States. This study, combined with other disappointing experiments and findings, will likely make universities think twice about sinking money into creating MOOCs (they can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 to develop). It might take another 6-12 months to see the shift. But I’d hazard a guess that this January might be the peak of the free MOOC trend. Enjoy them while they last. Whatever their shortcomings, they can be quite informative, and you can’t beat the price.

Free open education will continue in the form of cMOOCs and initiatives like OER university and Peer 2 Peer University but I share the suspicion that 2014 will see the commercial MOOC consortia starting to roll out new business models. A clearer freemium model will appear with possibly a basic self-service course available for free but with options for support, tutoring, validation and examination available at a price. The venture capital backers of many MOOC initiatives will naturally want to see some return on investment in 2014. It promises to be an interesting year and I suspect we'll see more changes in the educational landscape.