Saturday, March 28, 2015

Learners or consumers?

Watch (328) by Doug Waldron, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Doug Waldron on Flickr

Fifty years ago encyclopedia salesmen came to your door offering you the chance to ensure your child's future by buying their splendidly illustrated ten-volume encyclopedia. Many parents dutifully signed up for these offers and proudly placed the volumes in pride of place in the living room bookshelf, hoping that this goldmine of knowledge would give their children an advantage in school. However simply having access to content, no matter how well-produced, does not of course lead to learning. The content is a good starting point and inspiration but learning requires action, testing, discussing, failing and trying again.

Today we all have easy access to quality educational content through a myriad of channels, from mainstream broadcast media to MOOCs and open courseware. Enormous amounts of money are spent on content creation and we seem to still be locked into the traditional view of education as the transfer of information. If we agree that learning is social and requires active experimentation, creation and collaboration we should be investing more in ways to promote these processes rather than focusing so much on content delivery.

Do we want students to be consumers of content or independent learners? That is the question posed in an interesting article by Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation for the upcoming conference eLearning Africa 2015, Digital society at a crossroads: Do we want learners or consumers? He sees the danger of Africans becoming dependent consumers of western content and calls for more focus on adapting content to local conditions and helping people to create their own tools and services.

We are at a crossroads as to choosing what we want the digital society to be. That is either something that empowers and educates people or it’s something where people become consumers. In Africa in particular where people become consumers of products offered only or primarily by foreign companies.

The article gives examples of African initiatives to promote digital creativity by providing tools for people to build their own apps and web services but the main message is a global one; how do we move the use of technology away from simple consumption to learning and creativity? The first stage of digital literacy is learning to search and access content but for many people that's as far as it goes. We need to focus more on higher levels of digital literacy; how to exploit the power of the net to learn, create, produce and remix.

We need to build a tidal wave of people who in a really practical, business-oriented way can have an impact on the future of the web, on what the web becomes. What can industry do, what can governments do to creatively look at how every African can fully understand the power of the web and use it to make their lives and societies better?

Learning happens when you move from content to creation and collaboration.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Netflix and education

Ich glotz TV. by reflexer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by reflexer

Can parallels be drawn between the development of television, from scheduled broadcasting to on-demand streaming, and the movement in education from traditional campus-based studies to unbundled online courses including MOOCs? Donald Clark raises this question in a post, What does ‘learning’ have to learn from Netflix?

Netflix is in 50 countries and will go into 200 within two years. We badly need some big, global education content delivery. Brilliant, scalable content that teachers and learners love. MOOCs are getting there, showing what can be done but still far too long and over-scheduled (semester-long courses were never the real demand, just a feature of the old, supply model). We need subscriptions in the tens then hundreds of millions (Netflix has 57 million but growing exponentially). Education needs a Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter or Netflix. I’m tired of the corner-shop mentality, the attitude that teaching and learning has nothing ‘essential’ that can’t be scaled.

"Television is dead, long live television" sums up the situation rather well. Many people today have almost abandoned scheduled broadcast TV for streaming services like Netflix where content is available on-demand and on any device. Netflix, like many other successful services, uses customer data to adapt delivery to suit individual preferences and offer an increasingly personalised product. The analogy is that the same algorithm-based technology could be successfully implemented to deliver personalised educational content, as promised by the field of learning analytics. Clark sees this as a wake-up call to higher education to start fully exploiting the opportunities offered by technology.

Some kind of educational Netflix is not completely new. Apples iTunes U could be seen as a prototype still in development, offering almost a million lectures from thousands of universities on demand and on most devices. Add learning analytics, which I suspect Apple are already working on, and you get just that kind of customised service that offers new bite-sized modules related to what you're studying. I'm sure that the delivery of educational content will move strongly in the direction described by Clark but it is still a broadcast model, no matter how personalised and on-demand it may seem to be. Who produces this content and what view of the world do they wish their content to reflect? Which content can we trust and how can we ensure that the material reflects global and multi-cultural perspectives. The risk is that this market is cornered by dominant western corporations.

Delivering content at scale and adapting it to personal preferences is the easy part really. It's what you do with that content that leads to learning. You can consume tons of content without necessarily becoming much wiser. You need to be able to put it all into context and draw conclusions and this generally needs guidance and a community to discuss with. You also need someone to break the personalisation bubble and force you to watch or read something that conflicts with your own views. The problem with personalised services like Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and Google is they want to keep you happy rather than challenging you. The adaptive Netflix model of content delivery is on its way I'm sure but even if it's an exciting development I'm not sure it really contributes to education. It's still completely top-down and controlled by a big corporation.

The danger for me is that this content is still locked down by copyright. It would be far more valuable to education if all this content is openly licensed and can then be adapted, translated and remixed by local educators to be more relevant to local learners. What we really need is a dynamic, global educational cloud where content is constantly being created, adapted and shared and is available anywhere and on any device.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Flipping the webinar

Most of the time we can't see the wood for all the trees. I've been working for some time in different projects trying to make webinars more interactive and using various tools to extend the dialogue. These experiments have been mostly successful and I feel that the webinars I'm involved in are more interactive and creative than before but somehow one elephant has stayed firmly in the room - content. Nearly all webinars are centred around the delivery of content and even if we now chop that delivery into bite-sized modules with discussion in between, content delivery still dominates the session.

So why not deliver the content before the webinar and focus on questions and discussion instead? This is the basis of an interview with Michael Kolowich, CEO of KnowledgeVision SystemsFlipping the Webinar – Advanced Tips from Industry Expert on Re-imagining Stale Webinars. We generally get the participants' attention 2-3 weeks in advance so why not make the content available immediately?

The schedule problem comes from the fact that when you find out about most webinars, they’re 2-3 weeks in the future. But as a marketer, you’ve got their attention now! Why not deliver the content now? Why make people wait three weeks? Chances are that no matter how well-intentioned a prospective webinar attendee is, some other meeting will come up in that time slot, and they won’t attend. 

Let participants focus on the presentation in their own time and then provide a channel for questions and reflections, for example a Facebook/Google+ group, a Twitter hashtag, a Padlet wall or a dedicated discussion forum. Then the focus of the webinar will be discussing the participants' questions and offering them more space to contribute. One advantage of providing pre-recorded content is presentation quality. In a live presentation there are many uncertain factors that can effect the delivery, often due to bandwidth issues. If you have over a hundred participants, slides tend to upload slowly and sound quality will fluctuate. Even the most experienced presenters can make mistakes and so delivery is often less than polished. However a recording can be made to higher standards, allowing several takes as well as the opportunity to edit. The recording will deliver the message in a more convincing and professional manner than the live performance.

It's time to test this I feel and will be interested in seeing the results. If it means that the webinar offers a deeper and more audience-oriented discussion rather than simple content transfer then all the better.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Educational change - a delicate balance

A couple of days after writing my last post on how higher education is slowly but surely adopting technology I discovered an article, Debunking the Myth about a Creative Destruction of Higher Education with Technology as the Driver, on the government of Ontario's Contact North site. It outlines the reasons why technology is not going to cause radical changes in higher education for some time and lists the main barriers to change. The barriers to change are mostly about traditional structures and these are extremely hard to influence unless a major external threat looms large. The main barriers are government funding of higher education, existing quality assurance, international rankings and faculty workload and conditions. All of these build on maintaining traditional structures and thus dampen all attempts at innovation and experimentation

No doubt others would point to a number of additional points, which act as inhibitors to the creative destruction and reinvention of our post-secondary system – the way in which faculty is rewarded and promoted, the way in which research funding is administered, preoccupation with time and so on. The key point is that such systems have built-in inhibitors to change which ensure that change is gradual not fast, deliberate not impulsive, mediated not mandated.

It would take a very brave and radical change in government policy and funding to change things and even if one country took such steps they would risk their universities falling in international rankings. So everyone watches and waits and few if any are making any radical moves at top level. The article points out that despite plenty media attention and commitment from those involved, there are few signs that open education, MOOCs, unbundling, competency-based assessment and so on are having serious effects on the fundamental core structures of higher education. If change is going to happen it will probably come from outside the system and present such a threat that the traditional system will be forced to adapt.

But do we really want this type of revolution and what type of educational system will emerge? The danger is that commercial interests will take over and many of the traditional values of academic freedom and scientific inquiry may suffer as a consequence. The system certainly needs to be tweaked towards greater flexibility and innovation but the danger with radical change is that you throw out the baby with the bathwater. Remember also that educational technology is just one of many challenges and that we're changing a whole ecosystem. Slowly but surely.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Evolution not revolution

Evolution by j0sh (, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by j0sh (

Many of us who work with the use of technology in education get frustrated at the slow uptake of seemingly excellent tools and methods. We see the potential of open networked learning to empower and engage students as well as increasing collaboration, widening participation and fostering creativity and can't understand why our institutions are so slow to acknowledge and absorb these exciting developments.

A common complaint is that whilst so much of society has been changed radically by digital technology, universities look pretty well the same as they did ten/twenty/a hundred years ago (select time scale according to desired shock effect). I confess to having used this argument myself but it's worth taking a few moments to question our rhetoric now and then. Martin Weller does just this in a new post, The hidden tech shift in higher ed, describing how universities actually have changed over the last ten years. The student demographics have changed with many more older students who are studying online, part-time or not living on campus. Technology has actually become ubiquitous though maybe not as much as we would have hoped. Most courses today use learning management systems like Moodle, Blackboard etc and most students use their own devices to access their courses making the old computer labs almost extinct. Administrative procedures are now almost completely digital in many countries and even if the traditional written examination would seem to be the final bastion against digitalisation there are also many examples of digital examination as well as new methods for peer assessment and problem-based learning.

I still believe that there is a suspicion of technology in higher education and a reluctance to experiment but there are also significant structural barriers that we sometimes forget. Weller points to the barrier our classrooms and lecture halls place in the way of pedagogical innovation. Most universities are stuck with legacy architecture.

I think a real problem for higher ed is the legacy of the physical environment for example. We do lectures because we have lecture theatres. More significantly we can’t conceive of doing anything else because the lecture theatres says “do lectures”. It would be very difficult, for instance, to implement a flipped approach in many university courses because the face to face space is built for lecturing and not doing the other things you might want to utilize that time for.

Rebuilding and redesigning our learning spaces is an expensive business and not something that will happen overnight. However many universities are busy doing just that (my own university included) and there are many inspiring examples of new campuses and redesigned buildings that offer flexible, stimulating and technology-friendly learning environments.

Another structural barrier to digitalisation is the fact that teachers are paid for lecture hours in the classroom and when you're provided with lecture halls to meet the students it's no surprise that the lecture still dominates. Time spent on online support and tutoring is often not paid at the same rate as face-to-face lecturing. The administration has simply not adapted to seeing online teaching as being just as valid as classroom teaching and that helps to maintain the status quo. In addition many teachers feel over-stretched in terms of workload and there is simply no time for experimentation and learning new skills. When resources are limited as they often are in higher education there's little margin for experimentation and great pressure to simply effectivise existing activities.

Actually a lot has changed but maybe not as quickly as many of us would wish and maybe not in the right directions. Maybe we also need to realise that the issue of digitalisation is one of many intertwined issues facing education today and that there are no quick fixes. As I have written before it's about evolution not revolution.