Monday, April 25, 2016

Meeting the tech-skeptics

Why do so many educators still feel daunted by technology and avoid using digital media as far as possible in their teaching? Of course you can teach very well using only traditional methods and and I would never say that those methods should be abandoned. However since our students are preparing for life and career in an increasingly digital world they need to develop the necessary skills and literacies and if we do not address these in our teaching our courses will not be fully relevant. Digital tools can enhance classwork, extend discussions and practice outside the classroom and facilitate collaborative learning. So why is there still so much reluctance to engage with technology, despite years of initiatives, funding and development?

An interesting project called Unfolding the arms took a new approach to understanding why many educators avoid technology. The project title refers to the posture we all use when we simply don't want to do something, folded arms, and the aim of the project was to find ways of unfolding those arms and finding a way forward. They interviewed a number of teachers who were negative towards using educational technology and tried to analyse why.

So this is our idea. Talk to six (or seven, or eight) educators, who feel any sense of dread, impostorship or resistance when thinking tech. Ask some carefully crafted, genuinely open questions, shut up and listen ... Then, whilst the data is being analysed, offer each person generous enough to give of their time some one-to-one coaching with the Digital Nurse, to help them break through something that’s holding them back. Finally, ask them how they are doing and present the findings in some technology-enhanced way.

Two major lines of resistance were described, The first is termed Untrue Limiting Assumptions often centred around the belief that you are "no good at technical things" or are too old to start. Then there is the Impostor Syndrome, the fear of being "found out" and therefore avoiding the issue completely. I think many are well aware that they have fallen so far behind that the effort of trying to catch up now seems simply impossible, especially due to all the other pressures they have and the lack of time for competence development. The key to this experiment was letting the interviewees talk and voice their concerns and then letting them talk to a digital nurse who would offer help for them to overcome some of the easiest hurdles. Getting one-to-one support and taking small practical steps at a time seems to be a way of winning round many skeptics. Often the root cause is a lack of confidence and a fear of not being good enough. Many had tried to use digital tools but had encountered problems or complete failure and this created an aversion to the whole area. If no support is available, teachers who feel alone in the face of daunting technology will understandably retreat to traditional methods instead of persevering. The article focuses on digital resilience as a prerequisite and this only comes when professional, hands-on support is provided.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Is free sustainable?

I use and recommend all sorts of excellent free online educational tools and resources but only very seldom am I willing to pay for the premium version. I think teachers in general are happy to use the free versions but become extremely wary of paying even small fees for the full version. Somehow there is the feeling that everything on the net should be free and there is little thought for how the people who create the tools and services are going to support themselves. Giving away something for free sounds wonderful but how do you pay for development, support and simply making sure that it keeps working? Unless the product is supported by government funding or a benevolent financier it won't take long before you have to work out a business plan. But why should we pay when there is always a free version somewhere out there?

This issue is raised in an article on EdSurge, What Does Free Mean? questioning why educators are so reluctant to pay for a tool or service they use regularly. If we base so much of our teaching on free services there's no guarantee they will still be there next year, or even next week.

Many edtech products are cloud-based, but that doesn’t mean the companies that build them run on air. Educators should recognize that free tools may not survive for long. Without fully understanding how free tools are sustained, they run the risk of adopting and relying on technology that may change significantly—or not exist in a year’s time.

I freely admit that I have a lot of material stored on free accounts that could easily go up in smoke any time. Over the years a few of them have suddenly decided to become pay services since the freemium model simply wasn't sustainable. The result was that I had to move my material as fast as posible to another, free, service. But if our favourite tools are going to survive they need a sustainable business model and in the end we are going to have to pay something for them, unless they come from the likes of Google or Facebook where it is often claimed that you are the product. The article argues that schools and colleges need to consider costs for digital tools in the same category as more traditional tools for the classroom like textbooks, paper, pens and so on. Educational software is a vital element in teaching today but since we mostly use the free versions it never shows up on the expenses list and therefore is undervalued and taken for granted. Things that cost are seen as more valuable.

I believe teachers should be empowered to have more say in what technology tools are purchased. They should be allowed to advocate for the tools that work in their classroom - and perhaps even be given a budget for making purchasing decisions. ... This sort of empowerment can change teachers’ mindset about paying for the tools that will, in the long run, also help support the work of entrepreneurs that are developing them.

Maybe it's time to consider paying for the services we appreciate because if no-one does so they may disappear, taking our content and ideas with them.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Learning in the blender

I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the term blended learning. It refers to courses that combine both classroom and online teaching and I sometimes feel that its popularity is because it represents a safe compromise between the two forms of delivery; exploiting some of the flexibility of online delivery with the familiar traditions of campus. For those who are skeptical of fully online courses, blended learning is a safe option. I'm not against blending online and classroom, far from it, but I don't think the blend we really need is centred around physical/digital delivery.

I enjoyed reading a new article by Sir John Daniel, Making Sense of Blended Learning: Treasuring an Older Tradition or Finding a Better Future?, arguing that the blend we should examine more closely is not simply about rooms and virtual spaces. Today there is very little difference in student performance between well-designed online courses and their traditional counterparts. In some cases the online environment can in fact foster deeper discussion and greater sense of community. The key quality element is in the course design, not in the delivery form, and Daniel proposes that the real blend we are looking for is getting the right mix between independent and interactive activities (regardless of delivery form).

Independent learning takes place outside the classroom, even on the most traditional campus course, and today that means mostly online. Students need to learn how to study independently, find resources and investigate further than the prescribed reading lists. Learning how to learn is a key literacy. However independent learning is only half of the blend and courses need to include interactive learning, both with peers and especially with qualified faculty in seminar or tutorial form. This can take place both face-to-face (F2F) and online and the choice of arena will depend on the context. If it is possible to gather the group for F2F meetings then do so, but make sure the meeting is really interactive and not simply information transfer. If F2F is not feasible then use appropriate online arenas. Here even the term F2F is appropriate because when I have online meetings at least with smaller groups I can see everyone face-to-face, sometimes with excellent video quality. F2F today does not necessarily imply sharing the same physical space.

There is of course no magic blend, especially not in terms of technology, but Daniel identifies four vital principles:
  • Focus on learning outcomes. The blend of interactive/independent and F2F/online must fully support the learning outcomes. If that can be achieved fully online then that is fine as long as the quality of the learning process is assured.
    ... in optimising the blend of online and interactive experiences the focus should be on attaining the learning objectives of the courses/programmes and not on wider purposes, such as how to sustain the campus, important though such aims are.
  • Practical and laboratory work. Of course this aspect demands work at a physical location but with so many online simulations and virtual labs available the actual time in a physical lab can be reduced to a few intensive meetings.T
  • Teamwork and division of labour. Course design and delivery is not a solo project but teamwork involving different areas of expertise. 
  • Keeping costs down and quality up. These are perhaps the most important elements in the blend.
I urge you to read the article to grasp these points more fully but the rationale behind reviewing terms like blended and hybrid learning is summarised as follows:

What this new age requires is hybrid learning where the whole system is redesigned to create a happy blend of student-teacher conversations and online learning. This essay has highlighted, in particular, two important ways to make higher education more effective for the 21st century. First, students need to engage more fully with independent work. Online technology can help them do this ... and must be used intensively to free up time for students to prepare assignments and for teachers to use their interactions with students over their assignments as a prime vehicle for teaching. Second, teachers must help students, via apprenticeship-style sessions and commentary on their assignments, to develop skills and acquire academic knowledge.

My main conclusion from this article is that the blend we should be discussing is not a simple matter of F2F versus online, but a more complex mixture of independent and interactive learning where delivery form can vary according to context and where the learning outcomes are the driver. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Open education for all - but so few know about it

When I attend conferences and meetings it seems we're working with widely accepted concepts but as soon as I leave that intimate arena I get a reality check; most people have never even heard of MOOCs, open educational resources, open access and so on. Even students seem only to have limited experience of the vast range of online learning resources and open courses available.

The problem is that the people who use all these online resources are mostly those who are already well-educated and digitally literate. The often stated target group for open education, those who have so far been excluded from higher education due to financial, social or geographical barriers don't even know that it exists and even if they do they are often unable to take advantage of it. This is the theme of an article on Quartz, The Americans who’d benefit the most from online education have no idea it exists, that reports on a new Pew Research Center report (Lifelong learning and technology) on the use of the net in education.

This presents a paradox, the study’s author John Horrigan tells Quartz. The more rich and educated you are, the more technologically savvy you are, and the more you know how to use digital learning tools. While many low-income and low-education Americans would benefit from e-learning, they don’t have the income or education level to access it.

Despite the massive hype around MOOCs over the last 5-6 years only 5% of Americans are familiar with the concept. Even something as mainstream as distance learning is familiar to only 16%. Open education attempts to offer access to higher education to those previously excluded from it but they simply don't know these opportunities exist and even if they did they lack the skills to take advantage of it. Most Americans in the survey consider themselves as lifelong learners but learning is still strictly traditional in the form of adult education classes, reading books, joining clubs and training at work. Interest in learning is high but awareness of online learning is low, in stark contrast to a lot of Silicon Valley hype.

Of course it doesn't matter how learning occurs, the most important finding in the survey is that the majority of those questioned were involved in some form of learning. The question is why online learning has still not made the breakthrough in terms of mass uptake. Learning is available at a click wherever you are and whenever you want it but first you need to know how. The people surveyed go to local classes, read books, ask friends for advice and use trial and error to learn new skills and should of course continue to do so. However the vast opportunities for learning available through digital media would give them so many new opportunities that are totally impossible using traditional media. The breakthrough for online learning will come not through marketing and hyped news reporting but through local support and incentives through schools, libraries, community centres and other local institutions, helping people learn how to learn.