Saturday, September 26, 2015

PISA - worth digging below the headlines

Most people don't really like change and secretly hope that any new challenges will simply go away and we can all get back to normal again. This is certainly true with educational technology and every time some study indicates that technology has not made the impact many had hoped for there is a great cry of "what did I tell you" from the tech skeptics, often lead by the popular media. In the past couple of weeks we've seen a new wave of this after a new OECD/PISA report, Students, Computers and Learning, indicated that pupils' test results in reading and maths had not risen despite considerable investment in technology (laptops and tablets for all). The findings showed that pupils who spent most time on the net often had poorer test scores and this was taken as "evidence" that technology was not helping education.

... even countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies (ICT) for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.

This lead of course to headlines about the dangers of technology in education and gave fuel to arguments that the use of mobiles and laptops should be restricted. An example of the simplistic interpretation of this report was the BBC article, School technology struggles to make an impact, nicely commented on by Steve Wheeler in his blog post A message to Auntie. The truth, as ever, lies in the small print and the OECD report was actually arguing for more enlightened use of technology in education.

The OECD report explained the poor results by stressing that the focus of many schools and authorities has been on simply implementing technology without first reviewing and adapting the pedagogy and giving teachers adequate support. The report outlined several weaknesses in many schools' implementation of digital technology (see slideshow below):
  • overestimation of the teachers' and students' digital skills
  • naive policy and implementation strategies
  • resistance of teachers and students
  • inadequate pedagogy and instructional design
  • poor quality educational resources and software

What seemed on the surface to add fuel to the tech-skeptics in education was in fact a call for a deeper and more informed integration of technology where learning is always the focus but where technology offers a wide range of supportive tools and methods. Teachers need to see technology as an enabler rather than a threat and that digital tools can complement and enhance traditional methods rather than simply replace them as many fear. As I have written so often we need to stop these polarised discussions of digital versus traditional and focus on the pedagogy with a wide range of methods and tools to support it.

These issues are further discussed in an article from Merlin John Online, Computers and Learning: Missing the Connection, which describes a number of impressive examples of schools who have achieved great results by implementing a more enlightened approach to the use of educational technology. The head of one school, Jonathan Bishop of Broadclyst Community Primary School in England, makes a particularly apt statement:

ICT on its own is not going to raise the standards of education or the outcomes for children. What will raise those standards and outcomes is high-quality teaching; ICT used appropriately and effectively in the hands of capable professionals can deliver greater efficiencies, more personalised learning, enriched opportunities and greater outcomes for children.

As is often the case, we should not simply blame the technology but the superficial implementation of the technology. PISA's reports are often criticised by educators for simplifying education into league tables but if you read beyond the headlines they often have very sensible proposals down in the small print. This report is a good example where we need to dig to find the valuable information.

A final statement in the Merlin John article sums it all up:

In other words, is it the misuse of ICT, rather than the technology itself, that we should be blaming?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The spiral of silence - not just an online issue

Spiral staircase by aotaro, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by aotaro on Flickr

Social media should enable greater communication and discussion and the opportunity to interact with people we would seldom if ever be able to meet in person. In many respects these aims have been met but I get the feeling that the communication aspect is stagnating and that instead of real discussion we are retreating into cosy echo-chambers or simply exchanging pleasantries, selfies, cats and endless quotations. We naturally surround ourselves with friends who have very similar views as ourselves and so any discussions that do occur tend to be mostly mutual confirmation of shared values. In more public communities most people prefer to play safe and stick to non-controversial issues often in fear of provoking responses from net trolls.

The absence of genuine discussion is reflected in a study from last year by Pew Research Center, Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’, that showed how reluctant people are to discuss potentially controversial issues on social media.

A major insight into human behavior from pre-internet era studies of communication is the tendency of people not to speak up about policy issues in public—or among their family, friends, and work colleagues—when they believe their own point of view is not widely shared. This tendency is called the “spiral of silence.”

The study showed that people were much more guarded in sharing their opinions on Facebook and Twitter than when discussing in face-to-face groups of friends and family. No surprise really. Did we really expect people to be more open online?  I suspect it is not simply a physical/virtual issue since we tend not to make controversial statements at face-to-face meetings involving large groups of people we don't know so well. Social media are the digital equivalent of sitting in a crowded room and in both spaces you generally focus on small talk and safe subjects. We only discuss complex or controversial issues in small groups where all have similar opinions and the risk of serious conflict is low.

In education this has relevance for our expectations of student involvement in online discussion forums or large classroom sessions. To get any meaningful discussion you need to break up the crowd into smaller groups and focus at first on establishing a comfortable and supportive atmosphere. This reminds me of Gilly Salmon's five stage model for online learning which emphasises the online socialisation phase as the key to deeper engagement. This process generally takes time and effort but only when the members feel at ease and safe with each other will they begin to explore more uncomfortable issues and risk any kind of conflict. I think we are often too impatient with online students, expecting them to open up too quickly and not allowing the groups to settle before introducing more complex tasks. Simple socialisation activities should not be underestimated and the first weeks of the course should focus on team-building. If that magical group feeling can be established the real work can then begin. Without it the spiral of silence kicks in.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The end of the career path?

The highway bridge to nowhere, Cape Town by jbdodane, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by jbdodane

I have been working in the field of educational technology, distance learning, e-learning and so on for 11 years now. It has been a fascinating journey from my almost total ignorance at the start to a more qualified understanding today. By discovering openness and social media I was able to develop a rich global professional network and by sharing my thoughts and reflections I got invited to all sorts of interesting projects, conferences and networks. It has been indeed a life-changing experience even if I sometimes feel we keep discussing the same things and sometimes get frustrated by the painfully slow progress in the field. The field is still characterised by projects, pioneers and enthusiasts and there is still a strong common feeling of fighting the establishment that binds us all together. We all meet regularly in different constellations at conferences and in projects as we try to help our colleagues and institutions understand the potential of using today's digital media as tools for learning.

But what happens when we succeed in our mission, when all teachers use digital media and tools as a natural part of their teaching and when our authorities, schools and universities have digital strategies? A new post by Tony Bates raises this issue, Is there a future in online learning?, by stating that There is no (long-term) future in being an online learning specialist. Basically don't plan your career around this field. This seems rather surprising given the growth of educational technology but he too sees a future when educational technology becomes fully embedded into teaching and the role of the educational technologist becomes largely superfluous.

For the next five to ten years, there should be plenty of jobs for highly skilled instructional designers, but sooner rather than later institutions will be forced to ensure that their instructors are trained and qualified to teach effectively with technology. It will be a core part of their work, and as a result the demand for specialist learning technology support will decrease. The main role then will be providing some of the initial training for post-secondary instructors. 

There will always be a role for specialists but it would be unwise to plan for the log-term since there is little room for advancement in the academic world unless you can combine it with other academic pursuits. At the same time I think we will see the redefinition of many aspects of education and learning in the coming decade. The roles of universities, schools, teachers and students as well as the value of traditional credentials and educational structures are likely to be redefined. Stephen Downes comments on his blog OLDaily that there may not really be a future in teaching since the traditional teacher's role is rapidly fragmenting into different specialisations.

Maybe the notion of a traditional career path is what's really under threat and that we all need to be equipped to deal with changing roles and adapting to  new circumstances. Like many people I have changed path several times in my life and have had to learn new skills and subject areas when a previous avenue was closed. There is maybe no long-term future in being anything in particular. The idea of following a particular career path may soon be obsolete as life becomes more like a pinball machine than a straight and steady ladder. I'm sure that most of today's e-learning professionals will be doing something different in 5-10 years. What you need is the ability to learn, relearn and adapt. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Learning means getting below the surface

When I was a student I knew a few guys who almost never went to lectures and spent most of term either asleep or in the bar. Then a couple of weeks before the exam they suddenly burst into action, borrowed friends' notes and assorted books and then scraped through the test. I imagine there are still people like that at most universities. They didn't learn much but they had worked out the secret of knowing enough to pass the exam. It worked at least for the first two years but I've no idea how they got on after that. Hopefully they woke up and got involved when the course began to get more interesting. The reason I bring this up is to show that some people have always tried to take shortcuts, even on campus courses, and that this is not a problem exclusive to online education as many people try to make us believe. Some courses, both face-to-face and online, make it too easy to take shortcuts and not surprisingly many people are happy to capitalize.

A couple of articles in Inside Higher Ed sparked off this train of thought. Firstly one about cheating in some MOOCs, Multiple Personalities, Disorder, where researchers from Harvard and MIT have discovered that some participants were using multiple registrations to find out the right answers to the tests. Many courses use multiple choice tests to assess progress and when you have completed the test you can see the answers. So once you've seen the answers using your fake identity you simply log in as yourself and pass the test. If you make it so easy to cheat then it's no surprise that some people do. These types of self-correction tests are fine for helping students to grasp basic concepts and as a quick memory check but they should not be used as criteria for awarding certificates.

Secondly an investigation into the shortcomings of introductory courses provided by non-traditional education providers, General Ed Cheap and Easy. There are a number of online educational companies that have set up MOOC-like courses and the article shows how easy it is to get certificates and in some cases the opportunity to be awarded university credits without having understood so much. Once again the courses basically packaging content and then asking you if you remember what was in unit 2. The author tried a course in marketing and was able to get good results despite very little knowledge of the subject and without having to read too much.

Through inferring the correct answers, lucky guesswork, and trial and error, I completed 40 of the course’s roughly 240 units. I have a perfect score in all but two. I have never taken a course or worked in marketing.

This type of content delivery and memory testing can of course help you get a very broad grasp of a subject, just like reading a book or watching a few lectures. But the worrying thing is that some of these courses are getting accredited and can lead to you being awarded university credits. There's a lot of discussion about the unbundling of education and the promise of non-traditional providers and alternative paths to learning. I have written enthusiastically on this many times here and believe there is huge potential here, if managed carefully. However we have to be wary of courses that merely offer simple information transfer and superficial testing and not confuse these with courses that promote real learning and force learners to discuss, question, rethink and come to their own conclusions. Learning means digging below the surface of facts, figures and multiple choice tests. Many new providers have very slick and convincing marketing to show that they are more flexible, learner-centred, effective and enjoyable than traditional education. The sirens sing very enchantingly.

Some providers deliver what they promise but many are simply old wine in shiny new bottles. Some are pure bluff, verging on degree mills and suchlike. The problem is that they reinforce the view that this is typical of online education. The online element does make it easier to set up less professional operations but bad practice is not simply connected to form of delivery. When well designed and professionally run, online education can be as interactive, challenging and engaging as any face-to-face course. Those who offer accreditation need to learn how to see through the smokescreen and tell the serious professional providers from the rest. It's also our responsibility to become more discerning students and learn how to filter out the buzzwords and glossy surface.