Sunday, December 21, 2014

Paths to openness

path path path by hockadilly, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by hockadilly on Flickr

Martin Weller's new book The battle for open provides an excellent overview of the role of openness in higher education today. It charts the development of the main strands of openness (open access, MOOCs, open educational resources and open scholarship) and suggests that although the MOOC boom has made people more aware of the opportunities of open online education it is a false dawn. Interpretations of openness vary greatly and most MOOCs choose to only focus on free access but maintain full copyright on the material. Major investments of venture capital underpin the mainstream MOOC movement and many academics are concerned about the commercialisation of higher education.

One might therefore expect this to be a time of celebration for the advocates of openness. Having fought so long for their message to be heard, they are now being actively courted by senior management for their experience and views on various open strategies. Open approaches are featured in the mainstream media. Millions of people are enhancing their learning through open resources and open courses. Put bluntly, it looks as though openness has won. And yet you would be hard pushed to find any signs of celebration amongst those original advocates. They are despondent about the reinterpretation of openness to mean ‘free’ or ‘online’ without some of the reuse liberties they had envisaged. Concerns are expressed about the commercial interests that are now using openness as a marketing tool. Doubts are raised regarding the benefits of some open models for developing nations or learners who require support. At this very moment of victory it seems that the narrative around openness is being usurped by others, and the consequences of this may not be very open at all.

Weller points to the Silicon Valley narrative that education is broken and that commercial solutions will reinvent the sector. It's an attractive and media-friendly argument that has won many supporters and I'll admit that I've been won over by many of the articles and videos that have gone viral in recent years. The image of a hopelessly outdated system based on dull lectures and exam halls and failing to exploit digital technology may have some truth in it but is still a sweeping generalisation that fails to acknowledge the advances made in online higher education in the past 15 years. The MOOC concept was after all developed by university faculty and researchers as pedagogical innovation, Silicon Valley latched on and adapted the idea several years later.

So with the spotlight still focused on mainstream MOOCs some of the really interesting develoments have been taking place in the shade. If we are at a crossroads in the development of openness with one road leading to commercialisation we also need to see an alternative route where resources and tools are shared openly with permission to reuse and remix. One possible avenue could be the new initiative Unizin which is a consortium of American universities whose aim is to take control of their own infrastructure, resources and tools and offer a non-commercial cloud-based platform for higher education, outside the influence of commercial actors. Many fear that by linking up with major corporations and venture capital sponsored MOOC consortia higher education may be selling its soul to big business. Unizin wants to create a common cloud repository for educational resources that can be freely shared. The main driving force behind this is the potential of learning analytics and if student data is kept within the educational domain then it can be analysed for educational purposes.

Our goals and purpose in endorsing Unizin are simple: As professors and members of the academy, we want to support faculty and universities by ensuring that universities and their faculty stay in control of the content, data, relationships, and reputations that we create. As we look at the rapidly emerging infrastructure that enables digital learning, we want to bias things in the direction of open standards, interoperability, and scale. Unizin is about tipping the table in favor of the academy by collectively owning (buying, developing, and connecting) the essential infrastructure that enables digital learning on our campuses and beyond.

In a similar vein the Finnish government has announced plans for a national cloud-based educational platform called EduCloud (information in Finnish only at present) which aims to house a national repository of open educational resources as well as common tools and services. There is no doubt that commercial actors will continue to offer innovative solutions for education but the path to true openness lies in the educational sector taking charge of their resources and services. But this path is not about each institution building its own solution but in national and international cooperation. Maybe this will be a major theme for 2015. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Reflections on a course in open networked learning

CC BY-NC Some rights reserved by ONL141
Over the last 8 weeks or so I've been a facilitator on a course called Open Networked Learning together with colleagues from two other Swedish universities. It is a hard course to pin down since it resembles in many ways a MOOC but has no ambitions of becoming massive. Inspired by the connectivist MOOCs it is open to all who are interested and the content and discussions are accessible even to non-registered learners in a Google+ community though registration is required to contribute. The course material is mostly recycled open educational resources and the majority has a Creative Commons license. This term's version is in turn an adaption of three earlier courses run in cooperation with several institutions in the UK, some of whom have gone on to running their own variations of the basic format. So the concept is sustainable and has spawned an increasing number of variations on a theme. Here are my reflections on the important issues from this term's course.

The importance of community

An extremely useful guide to building communities in open learning has been written by Tanja de Bie (University of Leiden, Netherlands), Community handbook (April 2014). It includes excellent advice on dealing with different types of participants from experts to beginners, passive learners, haters and trolls. Our course happily did not attract any negative participants but they can be a problem in many MOOCs so it is essential to plan in advance how to deal with them so they don't pollute and sabotage the whole course.

The core of our course is online collaboration and therefore learners are encouraged to join PBL (problem-based learning) groups during the first week. Each week the groups are assigned course material to watch and read, choose a case scenario to discuss and finally present a solution. However we realized that not everyone wants to belong to a group so we also offered alternative paths: working with one partner or going it alone.

The results of this choice became quickly apparent. Solo learners dropped out very quickly whereas the PBL groups became lively and supportive communities that helped each other to complete the course successfully. Even if we tried to offer support and encouragement to the solo learners we lost most of them and this is a common experience in open online learning. Leveraging and facilitating the formation of self-supporting learning communities would seem to be the major hurdle to overcome when running this type of course. Once formed these communities will ensure that all or at least most members complete the course. Those who fall outside these communities require strong internal motivation to successfully complete the course.

The value of scaffolding

De Bie describes three phases in an open course: introduction, mature and closure. The introduction phase is crucial and sets the tone for everything else. It's a confusing period for many who may never have participated in online learning before, so nothing should be taken for granted. Facilitators need to work hard in the first two weeks to welcome participants and encourage them to contribute. Activities should have a low threshold so that everyone can be active as fast as possible and all activity should get positive feedback. De Bie suggests providing templates for student introductions, recording welcome videos and compiling an FAQ page as vital elements to a successful start.

We have considered asking participants from this course to act as mentors in the spring 2015 course. The new participants will have a partner in the first two weeks who understands how it feels at first and can provide help and reassurance that could make the difference between dropping out and fully participating.

Many suggest not counting participants until the initial dust has settled and you see who is really on board. There is little point in counting people who register and then disappear. This simply creates unrealistic completion rates since these people never really started the course. Some of them just want to see what's going on but have no intention of participating. Count who's involved after the introduction and work from there.

Synchronous meetings

Although hard to arrange when participants are spread over several time zones, synchronous meetings (using Google Hangouts, Skype, or similar tools) can help groups to bond and create a community feeling. In our course the regular hangouts were often described as essential for participants' continued engagement with the course. Our tactic was that facilitators arrange the first meetings and then pass on responsibility to the participants and this worked very well. By the end the groups organized themselves.

Rewarding engagement

Positive and constructive feedback is of course a major incentive but we shouldn't downplay the importance of simple but effective motivators such as badges. This is an area for future development but awarding a badge for the successful completion of each unit can help retention rates and inspire participants to keep going. Badges could also be awarded for soft skills such as giving good feedback, helping others with problems and being active in discussions. In some platforms you get awarded points for such activities and your score is visible whenever you log in. Another motivating factor can be showing that participants can actively influence course design and that their work will be available for the next course as a good example or as a case to study.

If you feel like joining us in spring 2015 just keep an eye on the ONL website.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Twitter as a tool for discussion

Life On The Wire by wildxplorer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by wildxplorer on Flickr

I have been an enthusiastic user of Twitter for almost 6 years now and use it mostly as a channel for sharing links to interesting articles and news in educational technology. I have a wonderful network of people I follow who provide me with useful links and ideas every day and often provide answers to questions I ask. Twitter is used in many ways and although my focus is on sharing interesting content it can also be used for discussions in the form of a Tweetchat. I have either lead or participated in many Tweetchat sessions, especially in recent weeks on an open course I'm helping to facilitate, and I thought I could share some experience and reflections.

So if you're planning to arrange a Tweetchat here are some points to consider:
  • Marketing. Spread the date and time of the session several times during the week before and make it clear that the session lasts for a certain time (generally one hour). The amount of publicity depends on how wide you want your audience to be, if it's just for one class then you won't need to spread the word any wider.
  • Preparation. I create a Word document and write all my questions for the chat in advance as well as other predictable messages like welcoming everyone to the chat and thanking everyone for an interesting discussion. I also have a list of interesting links to relevant articles, tools or suchlike in case I need to provide them during the chat. This saves a lot of keyboard bashing during the chat. Each message includes of course the relevant hashtag. 
  • Pre-chat instructions. Record a short screencast showing how to participate in a Twitter chat and post it well in advance. Then people know what to expect and how to participate.
  • Welcoming. As moderator I welcome everyone to the chat session and ask everyone to say hello. This is useful because then you know roughly how many active members you have in the chat. Good to know that someone is out there!
  • Questions. Normally the format is a series of questions that the moderator introduces every 10-15 minutes. To show which is which you write Q1, Q2, Q3 etc. Keep them short and sweet - Twitter's in-built 140 character limit forces you to be concise. Some organisers try to get the participants to answer using A1, A2, A3 etc but that seldom works in my experience unless you have a remarkably disciplined group. Normally people forget to even write which question they are answering so it can be hard to a logical discussion flow.
  • Hashtag. Without the hashtag the tweet disappears out into the deep blue yonder, only seen by those who actually follow the sender. Many good comments disappear this way so it's essential to remind everyone to remember the hashtag. If I follow that person or they are replying to one of my tweets it will show up in my personal feed. In that case I will retweet it with the hashtag so everyone sees the comment.
  • Socialising. As a moderator I try to give positive feedback to good comments as often as possible and participants soon do likewise. It's also nice to see them retweeting particularly good comments on to their own networks. Once this is happening more people will be alerted to the discussion and it's fun to see external participants with no connection to the core group joining the discussion. Good to explain in the preparation material that this can happen. 
  • Embracing chaos. Chatting on Twitter is fast and furious; once you get going you seldom have a quiet moment. You'll get answers to Q1 when everyone else is discussing Q3 and there'll be plenty of retweets of earlier contributions. The flow of tweets is seldom particularly logical no matter how careful you organise. This can be confusing for newcomers and many find it frustrating to be forced to discus complex issues in 140 characters. However I find the challenge of being brief is rewarding once you accept the limitations.  
  • Time up. When the time is up thank everyone for their contributions and step away. If some want to continue that's up to them but it's best to end exactly on time than dragging on too long. Most participants are amazed when you say the hour is up.
  • Follow-up. You can save and even edit the whole session on Storify, including flipping the flow order and starting from the first tweet. This enables others to read through the session with a little more logic than in the raw version.
Here are some more articles with tips on Tweetchats:
The Ultimate Guide To Hosting A Tweet Chat (Steve Cooper, Forbes, 2013)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Whatever happened to the education revolution?

Every new device or tool it seems is going to revolutionize education. Smartboards, iPads, Chromebooks, Google Apps for Education, Prezi, Minecraft, Khan Academy, flipped classroom - the list goes on. Somehow that revolution doesn't happen despite the appealing arguments of the enthusiasts. In the past such revolutionary technologies came along every second decade or so but today they turn up several times a year. The hype is wearing a bit thin. Here's a new video by Pierce Cook who argues convincingly against the exaggerated claims made about new technologies in education since the days of radio.

The message here is not that we should dismiss all innovations as gimmicks but we need to look at all methods in terms of how they enhance learning. Cook stresses that learning takes place in the head and is not dependent on any devices or tools. If you have the internal motivation, a supportive community around you and a teacher who can inspire, explain and guide then you can learn, even with extremely limited learning resources. Technology enables social learning in groups that cannot meet face-to-face and can extend and enhance face-to-face meetings but it's the "soft" factors (community, motivation, support, empowerment) that are the crucial elements.

The fact that the promised revolution hasn't happened does not mean that technology has no role to play. It simply means that new technology is not a quick fix and will not result in sweeping revolutionary change. I wrote a while back that the changes in education today are glacial rather than the tsunami of many press reports at the height of the MOOC boom. Education is changing at a relatively slow pace though in places there are significant leaps. Change is rippling through education rather than sweeping forward in a torrent. Sometimes it may seem like one step forward and two steps back but under the glacier the landscape is being reformed. When the glacier moves away we will not recognize the newly revealed environment. Those who have followed the changes and have reacted will adapt to the new conditions whereas those who thought they were on solid ground will struggle to cope.