Sunday, September 17, 2017

Are you an online evangelical?

What is your vision for online education? I've recently finished reading Edward Hamilton's Technology and the politics of university reform, and his position that there is nothing deterministic about online education, and how universities might apply it forces this question.

At the heart of Hamilton's critique is, broadly, who should determine the application of online technologies to higher education: administrators, or faculties. I'll clumsily try to summarise how Hamilton contrasts the two:

"Think": Brian Siewiorek, Flickr
Administrators: Seeking efficiency and competitiveness (the evangelical discourse):
  • Inevitability of change toward efficiency and access
  • CAI (Computer Assisted Instruction) and automation
  • The virtual university
  • xMOOCs (illustrative of paradigm)

Faculties: Maintaining freedom and tradition
  • Harnessing technologies to extend traditional academic role
  • Experimentation based on faculty-driven innovation
  • Blended learning (online and on-campus)
  • cMOOCs (illustrative of paradigm)

In my view Hamilton polarises things unhelpfully; my personal view is very much between these extremes in ways more nuanced than Hamilton permits. Not all with backgrounds in distance education or wanting to see education more efficient, for example, would like to champion the xMOOC! I am convinced, though, that Hamilton's core thesis is the correct one: technology is ambivalent. Any agendas for online education are formed by us, so the question in the title of this blog is a very important one. What is your vision for online education?

I'd like to challenge you, dear reader, to give some thought to this - and feedback your own vision. Here's my own starter:

My vision for online education starts with a firm sense of education itself: the opportunity to broaden how one thinks, tailored to the theories and practices of an academic discipline. Online education is at its best where academics provide a subject with its voice; learning designers provide it with structure and support the development of learning activities; and students are required to learn the discourse of each subject as they develop interdependence of thought with other conversants. I think online education should be concerned with the cognitive development of students, in the context of a qualification-oriented learning journey, exercised at scale.

Thoughts, on what is surely one of the more important considerations of online education...?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Gains in online learning since 2010, a good source for online learning trends and info, has released a high-level view of what we've learned about online learning since 2010. It's a good state-of-the-art summary, and a useful reference. The five questions are not my main interest here; what caught my attention is the "biggest gains in online learning since 2010" list:

  1. "Wider acceptance of online learning as being not significantly different in terms of learning outcomes than face-to-face learning", citing Russell's nsd work
  2. "A deeper understanding of the importance of instructional design and the ways in which course design can better engage students in their learning".
  3. "A strong investment in the professional development of faculty and instructors – more focused engagement in how best to leverage online environments for learning".
  4. "A renewed focus on learning outcomes and, more recently, competency- and capability-based learning."
  5. "Really great uses of simulation and gaming, especially in health sciences and science, to engage students in their learning".
The match between online learning and instructional design is fundamental to successful TEL. Later on the page, as the first part of an answer to the question "Do we still have issues with quality in online learning?" is another key proposition: "We need to see the work of creating online courses as requiring a team of people – we should stop relying on an individual faculty member or instructor to do the work of three or four people". 

Ah. It's refreshing to see this page and a return to roots to some extent: online learning done well links instructional design with online tools, involving teams of people each contributing their speciality. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

BERA Educational Technology SIG 7 April

The BERA EdTech SIG met at the Open University on 7 April. It's taken a while to get to this post because of the holiday and return to work I had in the intervening time... This was the first SIG meeting for some time, and the central location (Milton Keynes) made it very accessible. The event was over-subscribed!

No wonder it was popular. The theme of "Critical and theoretical approaches to research" is both timely and interesting, and the invited speakers - Prof Martin Oliver, Dr Sarah Hennessey and Prof Eileen Scanlon, with opening comments from Prof Jill Jameson - are quite a line-up.

Jill started with some opening comments framing the day's theme. Drawing in particular on the works of Carr, Selwyn (1, 2), Feenberg and Bulfin et al (all recommended reading!), Jill proposed that many in TEL reflect an "evangelistic positivism", and that much research can be described in terms of "a lack of problematisation, with superficial and naïve analysis". The opening comments were bold, critical and thought-provoking.

Martin picked up the baton and continued the theme in his opening address, "Educational technology: Why should we care?" Martin drew attention to the fragmented, incoherent research-base underpinning TEL and the apparent emphasis of promotion over evidence. Martin referenced the ideas of Friesen, Selwyn and Aristotle among others in his expose of technological determinism and subjectivity. The keynote was a powerful reminder of our responsibility as TEL practitioners and decision-makers to ask meta-questions about what we do, and to be concerned with power and authority rather than implementation. Among the more memorable statements for me, Martin suggested we should care about those critical of TEL and actively involve ourselves in their views; he also pointed out that efficiency is a poor driver for TEL implementation, as "education is not an information shovelling exercise". Well said. There was plenty in Martin's comments to urge debate and sober, reflective decision-making.

Sarah's keynote, "Criticality in reporting Ed Tech research: The BJET Editorial perspective" focussed on approaches researchers should consider if they are to make a positive contribution to literature. Various questions were raised, including these:

  • Is the research analytical, or descriptive? 
  • Does the research provide critique and balance, or does it gloss over issues? 
  • Are alternative explanations entertained? 
  • Are links made across the literature, and is the literature critically interpreted? 
  • Are counter-examples or explanations sought? 
  • Might any success be due to novelty value? 
  • Are sampling and the general population valid and well-described? Could the findings be replicated and sustained? 
  • Is the research innovative or at least original? Is it significant to existing knowledge and theory? 
  • Is the intervention tested with real users? Are there convincing learning outcomes? 
  • What are the implications for practice and policy? 
  • What is the role of the teacher? 
Sarah pointed out that many BJET submissions are based on technologies that have been simply introduced, rather than built on educational need.

Finally, Eileen's talk "TEL: Interdisciplinarity and Inquiry" promoted the merits of interdisciplinary research. Despite its challenges, Eileen established the many benefits that can arise. She promoted the design-based research methodology, and the Beyond Prototypes work she was involved with.

Afternoon workshops provided three options, each following up on one of the keynote addresses.

All in all a very positive day. Great connections, stimulating ideas, suitable challenges - a day well spent! Many thanks to the organisers and participants for an effective day of professional development. More to come, I trust!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Myths about education... A counter-voice that gets you thinking

TEL isn’t just about the techie stuff, though I do like that. As I mentioned in the second post to this blog, TEL is predominately about learning, even though the ‘Learning’ part of TEL comes last. I try to read up on learning as much as I try to keep up with technological developments – and I admit that I often find the learning literature more interesting!

A few years ago I purchased Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven myths about education (see The Guardian's review here). The book is brief, authoritative, clear, and punchy. Christodoulou suggests that there are seven pervasive myths about how students learn, and how teachers should teach. The myths find their expression in education ministries, teacher's colleges, and right across the schooling system. I reckon the same myths are equally applied across the HE sector. Critically, the myths are in opposition to good education practice.

Her book is well worth the provocation; here’s a quick overview. 

Myth-driven practice
Facts prevent understanding
An emphasis on experience, driven by concern that facts are acontextual nuggets of information, with no apparent immediate use other than filling someone’s head.
Facts are useful components for enhancing working memory, which can become overloaded. Memorising facts enhances further mental processing, and so provide long-term benefit.
Teacher-led instruction is passive
Activity and negotiation are prioritised in the belief that students learn best by doing through problem-solving, teamwork, and self-discovery.
Teaching can provide valuable shortcuts to knowledge, and reveal important information that may not be immediately accessible.
The twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything
Problem-solving and adaptability are prioritised, to make students better prepared for 21st century life.
Knowledge always builds on other knowledge; previous ideas are often more extended than replaced. The social context does not change this. 
You can always just look it up
Teaching ‘how to learn’ is emphasised, in the belief that facts are readily available; if anything can be found out by looking it up, facts do not need to be emphasised in learning.
Information processing relies on that long-term memory immediately at hand. Working memory (immediate processing) relies on long-term memory (stored knowledge) for its effectiveness. “It takes knowledge to gain knowledge”; domain-specific knowledge is essential for looking anything up meaningfully.  
We should teach transferable skills
Problem-solving, analysis, critical thinking and evaluation; less time in teaching subjects, in favour of more project work.
Transferable skills are applied differently across different knowledge domains; the concepts are transferable; the practice is not. Practising the use of knowledge develops skills; attempting to develop transferable skills separate from background knowledge makes no sense.
Teaching knowledge is indoctrination
Limiting subject content in favour of process, to avoid the projection of values that a knowledge-based curriculum might bring.
Teaching a foundational corpus of knowledge that draws learners into a shared understanding, as a means of promoting equality of opportunity; taking learners beyond what they might experience through exposure to fundamental ideas.

I utterly agree with all that Christodoulou has so objectively presented, with one small caveat. Ultimately I’m not totally convinced that we should throw out all myth-driven practice as described in the table above – mainly because their extreme opposites are likely no better. It is possible to teach facts in such a way that understanding is missing, for example; it’s also possible for teacher led instruction to be passive; for 21st century conditions to be different; to look various things up; to benefit from transferable skills; to indoctrinate by teaching knowledge. I suspect Christodoulou’s concern is that the myths represent an extreme response to issues that, perhaps inadvertently, overlook some of the very valuable means by which effective learning takes place. 

What I take from Christodoulou’s excellent presentation and argument is that we should continue to teach facts, because storage of immediate facts is foundational to both better subject engagement and meaningful, long-term independent learning. Sort of cognitive science/ learning principles 101.

What I most respect out of Christodoulou’s analysis is her focus on evaluating the latest fads and ideas using a critical lens. Online learning has had more than its fair share of myths – Second Life, anyone? – so we need to remain vigilant, and adopt the sort of critical response modeled by Christodoulou. Following Christodoulou’s lead, I suggest that spotting a myth involves considering not so much in the idea or slogan itself but rather the practice that the myth leads to, and what that practice seeks to displace. A false dichotomy of ‘you can’t learn necessary skills and facts at the same time’ seems the fatal flaw shared across those myths in the book. Under this dichotomy knowledge is displaced by activity, whereas it’s far more profitable to link the two. 

I found Christodoulou's voice here well-aligned with works I've enjoyed by Brighouse, Jeanneney, Bauerlein, BrownCarey, and Ambrose et al. Christodoulou also makes some very helpful comments related to the perspectives of Friere, Rousseau and Dewey in addressing Myth 1, helpful in that the comments serve as a reminder of how we ought not extend others' educational views too far. Let's soak ourselves in the evidence, and stick to the facts... 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kor blimey... Text on-screen?

Kortext have released a report, University of the Future: Transforming learning and improving value (here to go straight to the PDF). Main finding, from "the UK's leading provider of digital textbooks and learning solutions" is, surprisingly - " 89% of students would be more likely to attend a university that enables online collaboration and note sharing and access to the latest editions of textbooks". I wonder where they might find a vendor for such a service...?

OK. Way too much sarcasm. Let's unpack the report.

To begin with, the report has been researched independently by 3GEM. I have no doubts as to the validity of the responses. The headline findings are also arresting at first glance - until you try to extend some of them...

  • "69% say that getting core textbooks included in course fees would represent greater value for money." So, 31% believe that spending on texts in addition to course fees would not represent greater value...? 
  • "42% felt better routes into employment after university would improve value for money." So, 58% feel that better routes into employment after university wouldn't improve value for money...? 
  • "Over half of students (55%) said more contact time with lecturers would represent better value for money." So, just under half of students (45%) said more contact with lecturers wouldn't represent better value for money...? 
OK. The sarcasm continued! Apologies. It's just that reported findings like this raise questions about what exactly was asked of respondents. From here on in this post I'll reflect on those results I reckon are thought-provoking and useful. 
  • Students are becoming comfortable with the use of analytics in support of their study: "91% of students would be happy for their lecturer to track their progress if it helped them to achieve better grades"; "76% of students believe dropout rates would improve [in other words, they would reduce...] if lecturers could use analytics to see how they were engaging with course materials."
  • And, in support of some of my thinking in the previous post, "82% [of] students believe more people from disadvantaged backgrounds could go to university if a tablet pre-loaded with all required textbooks was included in course fees", and "92% believe universities should provide tech to students with additional learning needs to provide fair access to learning materials."
The best, though, is in the diagram on p.5 illustrating how students prefer to read textbooks: 
  • Laptop - 33%
  • Smart phones and tablet devices - 29%
  • Hard copy - 33%
  • Audiobooks - 5%
So, only 1/3 of the sample preferred hard copy textbooks. I admit to finding this quite surprising based on my own work in this area, yet also somewhat heartening. I am aware that around 18% if given the option to choose multiple ways of preference would choose on-screen only, so these higher numbers based on single preference for an on-screen option are very interesting. 

Overall I do think Kortext serves an important function. It does ensure that all students have the course text, and there are clearly advantages to electronic versions that students seem to be enjoying. 

Just one minor grr... 
University classes are now filled with ‘digital native’ students who have no memory of a time when access to the internet was not readily available, meaning universities have a responsibility to meet the changing needs of these learners. Just as millennials turn to Netflix for all their viewing needs and Spotify for their listening demands, there is now the need for universities to make course content available in similar ways and introduce more flexible ways of working (p.9). 
There is no such thing as a 'digital native', at least not in the sense popularised by Prensky. From previous post: "The concept of digital natives is contentious, and actual evidence for the distinction and its homogeneity is questionable [1], [2]". Student familiarity with 'e', though, is a point well made - yet likely more attributable to changes in society than any definite generational characteristic. 

I have some questions about the methodology, but even assuming that the survey was online-only and limited to those students who had used Kortext, the results deserve attention. Not the results cited earlier in this post, unless you're immune to my sarcasm... but certainly those related to analytics, device provision, and student preferences on how to read textbooks. 

Of course, Open Polytechnic simply wrote textbooks out of its customised online course materials entirely... but that's another story. Meantime I do look forward to more from Kortext and genuinely congratulate them on the service they provide. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

And, on the hardware side...

I was fortunate to attend BETT late last month. I missed the speakers, as I could only attend one day and my primary interest wasn't software or education systems. I was interested in hardware developments. These, I think, represent very significant shifts in contemporary TEL.

About a decade ago I was, I admit, somewhat bemused by the interest in mobile technologies. I was interested in the work of Traxler and Herrington & Herrington, but these were the days before the iPad, and touch-screen technologies were not ready for everyday consumers. Talk of mobile learning was restricted to media availability through iPods; text message; and IM. Tablet technology was in its early stages, and laptops were still very bulky. There was potential, but it was, at least to me, piecemeal and multi-device dependent.

Oh, how things have changed. Yes, we have had the recent explosion in iPad and Android tablets. Mobile phones are now incredibly powerful by processor, RAM, storage, screen resolution, connectivity and interface standards. Yet, until now, there have always been identifiable categories of phone, tablet, desktop, and laptop. I've even felt the (geeky) need to have all four at once.

No more! Hardware is taking a decisive, convergent step such that, educationally at least, it is almost an irrelevance to differentiate between tablet, laptop and desktop. Unless you're into high-end media development or intensive processing, it's possible to have a powerful and integrated desktop/ laptop/ tablet combination, running Windows 10, for as little as £320 including tablet, wifi keyboard and mouse, and external monitor. For the past six months I have been doing all of my work on a less powerful (2GB) Windows 10 Linx tablet than the 4GB version now available for the same price (I'm using the 1010B). The only exceptions are that I cannot print - seldom an inconvenience with a mobile tablet - and I cannot access some shared drives (yes, we still use shared drives... we're only starting to implement OneDrive effectively). With Office 365 I also have complete access to all files through OneDrive.

My work setup is the first photo.

From desktop environment to mobile meeting involves removing two cables (power, mini HDMI).

I can take the full keyboard with me if necessary; I haven't found the native Linx one very good at all. More often I just used the on-screen keyboard. I've synchronised with OneDrive, have a 128GB SD card on board, and I have full Microsoft Office applications installed.

I use the external monitor in portrait mode, which incidentally many have commented on and admired but few have adopted! It is, by far, the easiest way to engage with email inboxes and document reading where context helps.

Windows 10 gives me a low boot delay, and ready access to the entire Office Suite. I run full Outlook, not a tablet client.

At home I have a Microsoft Surface 3, easily the sweetest thing I have ever computationally decided to purchase. Check this arrangement out.

Yes, one Surface; two external monitors (one portrait, one landscape), one magnetic dock link for wifi keyboard and mouse and additional USB accessories. I can unattach the magnetic dock, attach the magnetic keyboard, and have a laptop. Or, more frequently, I just detach the tablet for a full mobile computing experience.

So, I went to BETT to see the latest devices. There were some very good ones; Asus were particularly cost-effective with their T102HA. But, to my surprise, there didn't seem to be much equivalent in price to the Linx 10V64 linked to earlier.

Anyway, here's my point: mobile computing has converged with desktop and laptop computing, at an incredibly accessible price point. Students can have all they need for a highly effective TEL experience for £320, and if their HEI subscribes to Microsoft Office 365, that amount can include installed versions of Microsoft Office. The specifications also give access to a very broad range of full PC applications. It's now possible to move from workstation to commute seamlessly, with the same degree of processing power using the same, full PC applications.

If I were a student just starting out, I would not go anywhere near a desktop or laptop solution. Nor would I go for a separate tablet. I'd be thinking about an integrated solution! Compare what I showed earlier for £320. Why would you do this? Or this? Or this? Or this? Or ... ?

Monday, February 6, 2017

HEPI report - Rebooting learning for the digital age

Interesting to see this report just released from HEPI, with a focus on the use of technology in support of campus-based education.

The reports makes seven recommendations:
  1. Higher education institutions should ensure that the effective use of technology for learning and teaching is built into curriculum design processes. This should include consideration of win-win methods, which offer both improved outcomes and lower costs.
  2. To support this, the UK higher education sector should develop an evidence and knowledge base on what works in technology-enhanced learning to help universities, faculties and course teams make informed decisions. Mechanisms to share, discuss and disseminate these insights to the rest of the sector will also be required.
  3. Institutions that do not currently have learning analytics in place should give consideration to adopting it at the earliest opportunity.
  4. Education researchers should consider how the learning analytics big dataset can be harnessed to provide new insights into teaching and learning.
  5. Digital technology should be recognised as a key tool for higher education institutions responding to the TEF. Providers should be expected to include information on how they are improving teaching through the use of digital technology in their submissions to the TEF. The Department for Education and the TEF panel must ensure the TEF does not act as a barrier against institutions innovating with technology-enhanced approaches.
  6. Higher education institutions should ensure the digital agenda is being led at senior levels – and should embed digital capabilities into recruitment, staff development, appraisal, reward and recognition.
  7. Academic leads for learning and teaching should embrace technology-enhanced learning and the digital environment and recognise the relationship with other aspects of learning and teaching.
There's not much that is new here - which actually underscores the importance of the recommendations! The value of the recommendations lies in their end-to-end consideration of the student journey and institutional practice, from planning the curriculum right through to senior governance. Linking technology with the Teaching Excellence Framework is another promising suggestion.

The only suggestion I have here is adding an eighth recommendation:

8. Higher education institutions should ensure that the lessons from learning analytics determine improvements to institutional practice.

Adopting analytics is easy, if not expensive; the actual return on investment relies on an institution having the courage to let what it learns actually make a difference to teaching and learning. It's possibly implicit in recommendation 1; it's clearer in recommendation 6, however that particular recommendation is not so directly concerned with pedagogy. It might also overlap with recommendation 7, though that recommendation does not necessarily address those with decision-making or systems-changing responsibilities.

We need to hard-wire continuous, data-feed improvement across our teaching and learning activity. Gathering, analysing and interpreting data are not the difficult tasks. Adapting to their truths is. Rebooting for the digital age requires leadership - and that the seven recommendations are not new is evidence that it is likely the eighth recommendation that is lacking.

It's not easy to change on-campus (or even traditional distance for that matter) education into what the seven recommendations describe here. It's arguably far easier to begin again, with an effective online, analytics-driven approach built-in from the ground up, and a curriculum aligned with TEL possibilities. Perhaps new entrants may have an advantage...?