Wednesday, November 26, 2014

From awareness to participation

Lecture Hall by ahyang, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by ahyang on Flickr

Can we please stop using the word "lurker" to describe people who follow online courses but make little or no active contributions? The word has rather negative connotations that have little or no relevance to online learning, but for some reason taking a back seat is seen as a lazy or less honest approach. Active participation is seen as evidence of engagement and passive reception is viewed with suspicion.

At the same time isn't this the way most of us learn at first, by watching and listening to others and reflecting on that? It's hard to actively participate when you don't feel comfortable with the terminology, the environment and the other participants. Many people are more introverted learners who dislike the irritating complexities of group work and enjoy being able to get on with the process in their own way. Some like to reflect on what they read and hear and don't feel the need to ask questions or make spontaneous comments. They may not be posting comments on Twitter or in forums but that doesn't mean that there is no learning taking place. Learning doesn't have to be out loud. This phenomenon is of course nothing new. We've always had quiet students who sit in the back row and never say a word in class and the same is true online. Some of these back row students go on to get top grades and some of their more vocal colleagues drop out. But we need to respect both groups and encourage them to "cross over" now and again. The silent learners can benefit from some active participation and the "noisy" learners can benefit from quiet reflection too.

There's an interesting article by Donna Smith and Katy Smith on this theme in the latest edition of EURODL (European Journal of open, distance and e-learning), The Case for ‘Passive’ Learning – The ‘Silent’ Community of Online Learners. This describes studies made at the UK's Open University on non-active students in online courses and shows that silence and learning can go hand in hand and that this has implications for course design and teachers' strategies. There is such a strong focus today on getting students to be actively engaged in their courses that we may be forgetting the need to step back and silently reflect. Therefore we need to cater for participation as well as quiet absorption.

There may therefore be a tension: between institutions that expect students to ‘actively engage’ for all sorts of reasons, and learners who may not want to (at all, or some of the time). Institutions therefore need to explain the benefits of ‘actively engaging’, design modules where this is seen as useful by learners, make sure that those teaching the modules understand what is expected of students and know how to encourage participation and have undergone relevant staff development (something which also applies to those writing and designing online modules). Institutions also need to understand that some learners will simply resist engaging as much as possible (making the above strategies even more important, if activity is deemed essential by the institution).

"Passive" learning is maybe not a good term either since learning is an active process even if no noise is made. Maybe "silent learners" is better. We need to make the learning environment supportive and empowering to slowly nudge them towards more active involvement. Learning is at first all about watching, listening, absorbing, imitating and reflecting. As you do that you develop awareness of the issues and for many people that is enough. Awareness leads to reflection and can change the way you view the world. Not everyone wants or needs to take that any further, the internal learning has taken place. The step from awareness to participation is important but we can't force it. Let's give a nod of recognition to the back row. They may be working harder than the ones in front.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Innovating pedagogy

Innovation MK II by Vermin Inc, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Vermin Inc

If you want to get an idea about how education and learning are changing I can recommend that you read the Open University's report Innovating pedagogy 2014. It is their third annual report and is now becoming a much awaited publication on the latest pedagogical trends.

This series of reports explores new forms of teaching, learning and assessment for an interactive world, to guide teachers and policy makers in productive innovation. This third report proposes ten innovations that are already in currency but have not yet had a profound influence on education. To produce it, a group of academics at the Institute of Educational Technology in The Open University proposed a long list of new educational terms, theories, and practices. We then pared these down to ten that have the potential to provoke major shifts in educational practice, particularly in post-school education. Lastly, we drew on published and unpublished writings to compile the ten sketches of new pedagogies that might transform education.

This year's report includes the following concepts, each described in detail with references to practice and theory.
  • Massive open social learning. How do we add the social element to MOOCs and other forms of open learning? Can we exploit features of gaming to increase the level of interaction?
  • Learning design informed by analytics. Learning design shifts the focus from content to learning processes. Can we tap into the potential of learning analytics to make more informed choices in course design?
  • Flipped classroom. This concept is already widely practiced but how does the flipped approach influence how the classroom and other learning spaces is designed?
  • Bring your own devices. This is also well established in many schools and colleges but how does this empowerment of students affect course design, classroom design and the relationship between teachers and students?
  • Learning to learn. The most valuable lesson is learning to be a self-determined learner who can find and filter information, form networks and critically assess sources. This is a long process and needs to be integrated in all subjects.
  • Dynamic assessment. Testing and intervention are intertwined and the teacher supports the student's learning by helping the student through the tests by means of hints and prompts. By following the students in the test teachers can see  what they have difficulty with and offering relevant follow-up.
  • Event-based learning. Creating educational activities around an event over a short period of time can allow for the creation of communities of interest where students can exchange ideas with people who they would never otherwise interact with. 
  • Learning through storytelling. Developing a narrative is part of the meaning-making process. By creating a story around even a scientific experiment students gain a deeper insight into processes and must find creative ways of representing the process using images, film, text and graphics.
  • Threshold concepts. Every subject has threshold concepts that once learnt fundamentally change the way you look at everything else. Focusing on these concepts are an excellent way of grabbing students' attention.
  • Bricolage. Learning by playing with the constituent parts, as a child builds new constructions from Lego pieces. Breaking down, building up, creating new concepts.
Many of these innovations rely on technology but the most important point is that the pedagogy is in the forefront and although technology is often, but not always, a prerequisite there is no specific mention of the tools or devices. Maybe we are at last moving away from lists of how the iPad/tablet/Chromebook is going to change education or how a certain tool will revolutionize your teaching. Instead we focus on pedagogical practice that fosters learning with the understanding that although technology plays a vital role these practices can also apply in face-to-face settings. 

Reference: Sharples, M., Adams, A., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Weller,
M., & Whitelock, D. (2014). Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Open University Innovation Report 3.
Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wisdom of the crowd or rage of the mob?

Thanksgiving at the Trolls by floodllama, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by floodllama

A recurring theme in the media is the abusive tone of so many online arenas and the destructive power of trolls. We've all seen how online discussions can turn nasty and I have withdrawn from many when the trolls take over. A BBC article, Twitter and the poisoning of online debate, looks at recent abuses on Twitter and worries that real discussion is being forced away from the public arena.

And there is wider concern about the future of online debate. Where now are the places that reasonable people can go to find discussion that does not quickly descend into abuse and flame wars? Anonymity is undoubtedly a vital defence for vulnerable people under oppressive regimes - but it has also allowed others to express themselves in language they would never think of using face to face with their targets. This kind of behaviour rapidly has a kind of malign network effect - once forums become occupied by noisy sweary folks, more reasonable voices quietly depart.

I think the main issue here is management. There are many excellent discussions on the net completely free from insults and abuse but you need active managers as well as a community spirit to quickly extinguish any flames that may occur and this means warning and then removing abusive users whenever they overstep the mark. An online discussion must have a set of basic rules and by signing up you agree to abide by them. When an arena gets as massive as Twitter and is used for a myriad of purposes it becomes difficult to police effectively. What is blatantly offensive in one group may be quite normal in another. The more diverse the community the harder it is to administer. What is sad is that the trolls are forcing many people away from the public arena and into safer more exclusive discussion spaces. 

However I don't think this is solely an online issue. If you want to have a discussion and you sit in the middle of the town square where any passer-by can join in you would probably attract a few people who will try to disrupt the conversation. If you gather a group of friends in a room and close the door you will not be disturbed. A colleague of mine remarked in a seminar recently that the net is like an amplifier when it comes to education; a good course can be great online and a bad course can be really bad online. The same amplification effect can be applied to online discussions. In a well-managed environment we can harvest the wisdom of the crowds but without curation the trolls are loose.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


How often do you write by hand these days, apart from quickly scribbled notes? When did you last write a real letter by hand, a structured letter in paragraphs with a clear theme? I must admit that, even if I write more than ever before, it is almost completely digital and my handwritten efforts are limited to short reminder notes or when my laptop runs out of battery power at a conference. I generally print rather than the cursive style I learnt in school. There's also the problem that many young people won't be able to read my cursive handwriting. As schools become increasingly digital the amount of handwriting decreases and when it does occur it is in the form of printed text. In China, India and the Islamic world handwriting is an art form and ornamental writing is an integral part of buildings and monuments. Are we in the west losing this art form as we abandon cursive handwriting for the keyboard and touchscreen? Should schools continue to teach handwriting, in particular cursive, and what are the benefits?

This is discussed in an article on Mind/Shift, Cursive, Print, or Type? The Point is To Keep Writing. It seems there is no conclusive evidence that cursive has any advantages over print in terms of children's learning development and that the arguments in favour of teaching cursive revolve mostly around heritage and the ability to read old documents.

All of the researchers NPR spoke with agree that cursive is good, but none would argue that it is better or more important than printing. The evidence just isn’t there. As long as children are writing in school, it doesn’t really matter if the letters curl and connect. So, problem solved. Or is it?

I believe that handwriting should be taught in school, at least as backup when your digital device won't work, but the form is less important than the process of writing. Maybe cursive will disappear completely from the school curriculum but it would be tragic to lose the skill completely. Maybe we should move it into the art classroom as calligraphy. Being able to create a beautifully formed text in ink is as rewarding as making a sketch or a painting. Cursive may no longer be a standard for written communication but it is still unquestionably the most expressive form of writing. So much of the writer's state of mind and personality is displayed in their cursive handwriting (you're welcome to analyse my writing in the photo above) and it would be sad to lose such insights. Ironic therefore that this form of self-expression is dying in an age that otherwise is characterised by self-expression.

One curious paradox of digitalisation is that at a time when we all use keyboards every day almost no-one learns to type properly. Why don't kids learn to touchtype? When I see older colleagues with typing skills write a text at lightening speed I realize how inefficient my own halting style is. However the main conclusion from all this is well summed up in the article. The most important thing is that children write as often as possible, though the form of that writing may not be so important.

“If we expect kids to develop mastery in anything and develop fluency in anything, they have to be doing it on a regular basis,” says Scott Beers, who teaches education at Seattle Pacific University.
That’s true not just in kindergarten or first grade, but in grade after grade. Focus on handwriting early and often, experts say, print or cursive or both. Then, as kids’ brains develop, gently lay the groundwork for typing.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Can universities change course?

supertanker by wlai, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by wlai

Like it or not universities are going to have to face a completely new market in the next ten years. Most of them are still working in the traditional model of educating young people who come to campus for 3-5 years and then enter a career that will keep them employed till retirement. But although there may still be a place for this model there are strong signs that the concept of a university education preparing you for a career is becoming less valid. The demand for higher education among working professionals is growing rapidly and is overtaking the demand from the traditional 18-23 year old target group. The traditional target group could even shrink as more young people opt out of often over-priced higher education. In addition there is a massive demand for lifelong learning opportunities from people who have no university background but have gained equivalent skills outside the formal system. The worldwide demand for higher education is exploding and projections show an increase from 100 million today to 250 million by 2025. The traditional university system simply cannot cope with all this and unless we start building new major universities every day for the foreseeable future we will need to completely revise the provision of higher education.

The new learners are not able to uproot themselves to move to the university or commute to campus classes since most of them will be studying while working full-time. They will be more skills-focused than young students with no work experience and they may not see the point of many traditional academic concepts. The gold standard of the 3/4 year degree may not be relevant for tomorrow's professionals and traditional examination forms will be increasingly questioned in favour of various forms of skills assessment. Of course many universities already offer an extensive range of online courses and even degrees with many national open universities in the forefront, but with a few exceptions most institutions still see traditional campus education as core business and professional development and lifelong learning as a sideline at best. Higher education is also highly selective with millions of potential students being rejected every year. Where do you go if you can't get into university and should higher education be a privilege or a right?

The European Commission's High-Level Group on the modernisation of higher education has published a welcome report, New modes of learning and teaching in universities. They offer a number of recommendations for the improvement of teaching technologies and practices and stress the need for government authorities to stimulate and foster educational change rather than the present practice of delegating responsibility to grassroots initiatives alone. They call on all member states to draw up strategies to support universities in this major change in focus as well as stressing the need for coordinated teacher development and support. In addition they stress the need for quality assurance in online learning and the open availability of educational resources.

There remains a culture of conservatism within European higher education which needs to change. This demands strong leadership and vision from both public authorities and institutional leaders. While a broad range of good practice is already emerging across Europe, this is happening to a large degree in an uncoordinated bottom-up approach. It is now time for governments and institutions to develop comprehensive strategies at both the national and institutional level for the adoption of new modes of learning and teaching within higher education. 

The report makes refreshing reading and stresses what many of us have been saying for a long time, namely the need for commitment and engagement from the top level to coordinate and stimulate the important work done at grassroots level. Relying only on a bottom-up approach can only have a limited effect since sooner or later such initiatives bounce against the plexiglass ceiling of uninterested and uninformed leadership.

Our message is clear. While accepting that higher education institutions and, more particularly,
teaching staff are the main actors in delivering these pedagogical changes, it is the
responsibility of public authorities to create the environment and incentive for action.

The tricky part is how these recommendations will be received by national authorities, especially at a time when there is a high level of Euro-skepticism in most member states and where the Commission's initiatives are not always welcomed. The 15 recommendations in the report would provide the perfect platform for a major leap forward in European higher education, especially if they could be implemented across the entire EU, but first we need to replace all the shoulds with shall and will and there must be real financing behind it all. However this is a major step forward and recognition from a high level that online learning is no longer an optional extra but a fundamental element of all education. Maybe the supertanker is beginning to change course, if only marginally.