Sunday, April 23, 2017

Expanding digital learning spaces

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
In my last post I wrote about how physical learning spaces are being redesigned so that the boundaries between formal and informal spaces becomes increasingly blurred. Spaces can quickly be transformed from social areas to a seminar venue and previously unexploited spaces such as corridors and entrance halls are now used for group work, private study or events. I love the idea of designing spaces to enable serendipitous learning; you're sitting drinking coffee when you hear that a short lecture is beginning a few metres away and you simply can't help listening and being drawn in. Similarly you may strike up a conversation with another coffee drinker and suddenly you find common interests. Admittedly spontaneous discussions between strangers are pretty rare but maybe if the environment is right.

If we can transform the physical spaces to foster socialising or learning then maybe we should examine the digital space. Can we offer a greater flexibility in digital spaces allowing people to mingle or set up discussion groups on the fly? There are lots of tools that already do this to some extent but each tool or platform is a silo relying on all your contacts being members. I often have problems arranging video meetings where some people lack an account with the tool being used or work for an organisation that blocks that particular tool. Do we really have a digital equivalent of the informal learning spaces now appearing on many campuses? Digital cafes, commons areas, squares and parks. I don't think we're there yet but in the last couple of weeks I've found a couple of interesting new digital spaces that promise some new dimensions.

The first is a new webinar tool called Shindig. This seems to raise the bar for more interactive and flexible webinars and I'm very curious to try it out. In a typical session you have 2-3 presenters who lead the webinar and they are seen in larger video windows at the top of the screen. The participants are represented by smaller video windows to form a visible audience in the bottom half of the screen. Each participants can quickly set up their audio and video and there are no downloads or add-ins to complicate things; everything works in your browser. Every participant can ask to speak and can then be invited on "stage" with their video window joining the speaker(s) at the top of the screen. This is possible in existing webinar tools but this seems so much simpler.

The point that excites me about Shindig is that the participants can gather in small groups and "mingle". If you see someone you know you can "sit" next to them and even start your own private video or audio session. Before a session starts this feature can allow for the sort of mingle that is often so interesting at conferences. Group work can easily be organised  by simply asking participants to discuss with their neighbours rather than the complicated procedures needed for breakout groups in existing webinar platforms. Add in features like the capacity to accommodate over 1000 participants, social media integration (live streaming on Facebook or YouTube), recording and the ability to open private chats with any participant and you can see why I am so enthusiastic (full list of features here). At present you can apply to arrange an event but the platform isn't yet available for purchase (I assume this will costs a bit). Have a look at the publicity film here.

Virtual worlds had a hype peak with the Second Life boom about 10 years ago but it never really became mainstream as many of us had hoped. However with the advance of virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) there are now plenty of new virtual worlds to build and explore, often superimposed on "real reality" like Pokemon Go and so on. One thing that has been lacking in VR applications is the opportunity to invite your friends to meet you in the virtual space and that's where Facebook's new VR application Facebook Spaces hopes to create a niche.

The idea is that when you're in your VR environment, maybe exploring a rain forest or the sights of a major city, you can invite some of your Facebook contacts to join you for a discussion. In the VR environment you should already have created an avatar but if your contact doesn't have an avatar they can appear as a video window instead. The key to this, as in Second Life, was that you could meet people in a particular environment and give a spatial and experiential aspect to the online meeting that is otherwise generally just a meeting of talking heads. You create a shared experience; "remember that time we met beside that amazing waterfall". read more on this in a review of Facebook Spaces on WiredFacebook’s Bizarre VR App Is Exactly Why Zuck Bought Oculus.

Facebook Spaces could be the next big thing or it could sink without a trace but the main point is that there is an increasing focus on making digital spaces more interactive. This can facilitate, say, socialisation and group work between campus and online students, two groups that up till now seldom interact. Many more tools will come and go but the trend towards integrating formal and informal digital learning spaces is clear. Watch this space.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lessons for sale

CC0 Public domain on Maxpixel
Although open educational resources have still not really gained mainstream status around the world there is a vast amount of quality resources available in numerous repositories with Creative Commons licenses allowing reuse and adaptation. I was therefore surprised to read an article in Education Week Teacher describing how teachers are making considerable amounts of money by selling their resources, Million-Dollar Teachers: Cashing In by Selling Their Lessons.

At sites like Teachers pay teachers, Teachwise and Teacher's notebook you can browse a wide range of lesson plans and resources and buy the ones you like the look of. Evidently the members of Teacher pay teachers have earned over $100 million and several have become millionaires from selling their teaching resources. Most of the resources cost very little and I assume most people only earn small amounts each year but some teachers have become major players offering an extensive range of resources as lesson or course packages.

Despite worries from some educators, such online marketplaces are booming, driven by rising standards and the willingness of teachers to pay out of their own pockets for classroom-tested materials.

What amazes me is that so many teachers are willing to pay to get resources that are probably comparable to those available completely free in OER repositories like OER Commons or This raises many questions that would be interesting to investigate. How do users of these commercial sites judge the quality of the resources and how does that differ from how they judge the quality of open resources? Many teachers are wary of OER simply because they find it hard to believe that something of value can be free and indeed one of the most commonly raised objections to openness is a perceived lack of quality assurance (even when it is present). Many international initiatives have been launched to define quality criteria for OER and there are several excellent reports available (eg State of the Art Review of Quality Issues related to Open Educational ResourcesQuality Assurance Guidelines for Open Educational Resources). Does payment somehow create a sense of quality and credibility? Certainly the incentive to earn a little extra from your work is attractive and maybe some kind of micro-payment system could entice more teachers to share resources. However as soon as a price tag is added you create a competitive market and barriers go up between teachers who are more focused on selling than sharing.

But Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says taking "proprietary rights over ideas and lessons" could disrupt the traditional collaborative atmosphere of schools. "You want teachers to collaborate and share ideas freely."

The article also raises the issue of whether teachers should be able to monetize their resources since in many countries the school, as employer, has copyright on material developed during working hours. Even in institutions that recognise the teachers as copyright holders it still seems strange that they can profit from selling material that they have developed as paid (and often public) employees.

I believe that education should be for the public good and as such should be open to all and not turned into a commercial market. Teaching should be about creating context, inspiring, challenging, questioning and mentoring, not simply producing content. We need to work harder to encourage open sharing of ideas and resources so that they benefit all levels of education and the whole spectrum of society. Sharing can lead to better use of resources, minimising the need to reinvent the wheel every day, and foster a community of practice among all teachers. This commercial development may be because so many teachers are completely unaware of the abundance of OER available but it could also be a sad backlash against openness. I hope it is not the latter.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Learning spaces - from monofunctional to multifunctional

Redesigning learning spaces is one of the hottest fields in education just now and I doubt if there are many institutions that are not planning some kind of makeover to their campus in the near future. The almost ubiquitous use of educational technology together with the transition from teacher-centered content delivery to active collaborative learning require a major rethink of how the institution uses its campus space and also how the digital campus can be realised. A couple of weeks ago I attended and spoke at a conference in London on this theme, Next Generation Learning Spaces. There were many inspiring projects in the programme, though of course only a small selection of what is taking place globally. Although my focus was on how we can redesign the digital spaces to facilitate collaboration and reduce feelings of distance (see my presentation slides), I would like to present some of the most interesting aspects of campus redesign that were presented.

Reviving "dead" spaces
One speaker reminded us that today's designs are creating a legacy for the future and that we have to be careful not to let today's inspired design become tomorrow's headache. One legacy from the sixties and seventies that we are trying to deal with today is the problem of how to revive all the dead spaces around the campus: long corridors, concrete squares, dull entrance halls etc. These are spaces that people simply pass through as quickly as possible but could be exploited with a little imagination.

One impressive initiative was the Creative Campus project at the University of Kent that studied how students used formal and informal spaces on campus. Students were invited to propose solutions to revive these dead spaces in innovative ways. These solutions included transforming enclosed corridors into a cafe study area with colourful furnishings designed for group work and with a solid wall being replaced by glass panels that could be opened in the summer onto a patio area (see example). Drop-down screens make it possible to run semi-formal seminars. The furniture is multi-purpose; you can quickly build a stage with it or the tables can be turned on end to become poster boards for exhibitions of student work. Another solution was to make use of the parkland around the campus to include outdoor classrooms and a theatre and these can now be booked in the university system just like any other teaching space (see example). This was an excellent example of students making their mark on the campus and some of them went on to starting their own companies as a result.

A presentation of how a large, dark and unused basement area at Edinburgh University has recently been transformed into a lively and popular learning space was of particular interest to me. As an Edinburgh student back in the seventies I remember that exact area in its most uninspiring period and can vouch for the fact that you didn't want to hang around there. See what it looks like now.

From monofunctional to multifunctional
Another clear trend was the move towards multifunctionality, where all spaces can be used for many different activities rather than having dedicated lecture halls, classrooms or computer labs. This requires close collaboration between design teams, staff and students to ensure all needs are covered. At the University of Glasgow students and teachers are involved in the design process, testing new furniture, equipment and spaces at showcase events. They can try out the new designs, work in them, move the furniture around and generally get a feeling of what works and what doesn't work. 

The Manchester Engineering Campus Development (MECD) project at Manchester University mixes and integrates teaching and workshop spaces. A larger workshop area includes areas that can quickly be turned into a temporary teaching spaces using screens and flexible furniture. Teaching and practical work are thus integrated and students can move naturally from one to the other without changing rooms. They have also built a blended lecture theatre which adjoins a cafĂ© and group rooms. For some lectures or events the screens could be rolled back allowing the people in the cafe to eavesdrop on to the event and the lecture hall also had a large window out to the street where passers-by might notice what was going on and be tempted to come inside. This would seem perfect for lunch seminars and allows serendipitous learning. The central entrance hall was also designed for easy conversion into a conference venue or a graduation ceremony where the stairs and balcony areas can be used as seating accommodation. 

At the Said Business School, University of Oxford, they are converting a derelict power station into a custom business school (see Osney Power Station Development). Here the idea is to think of campus spaces as film sets that can be transformed by moving in a variety of props and that all spaces can be used in a number of ways. By allowing this multifunctionality we may be ensuring that the legacy of today's developments does not become a headache for tomorrow. A further example of multifunctionality is the University of Sheffield's Diamond building. Here local schools were able to book the university facilities and meet faculty and there seems to be an increase in this sort of outreach with more integration between educational sectors. One speaker summed up the design process as making what you do fit the building and make the building fit what you do.

Breaking the vicious circle
At the University of Leuven in Belgium they are working to bridge the gap between pedagogical and learning space development so the two areas can develop in tandem instead of in conflict or mutual misunderstanding. Two internal projects, ALINA and TECOL (Technology Enhanced Collaborative Learning) have been formed to break this vicious circle:

the lack of use of innovative teaching practices reduces the demand for new and flexible rooms, which reinforces the traditional habits of teachers.

Teachers need training and support to see how new types of learning spaces and digital media can offer a wider spectrum of teaching strategies and that the development of new learning spaces must go hand in hand with pedagogical development.

In order to stimulate teaching and management staff, ALINA is developing a model and an accompanying tool. This tool could assist teachers in choosing the right learning space for their didactic method and vice-versa. Therefore the application will be able to provide manuals to a broad range of learning methods who will be linked to specific features available in certain learning spaces. For management staff, the tool can help to develop a consistent policy about learning spaces by collecting data on the needs of teachers and the available learning spaces.

Finally I can warmly recommend the newly published UK HE Learning Space Toolkit that has been produced by UCISA (Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association) and several other UK associations. Here you can find plenty of inspiration and practical advice for all types of redesign projects.

The overall message is clear; a shift from specialised spaces to generic, multifunctional and informal spaces. However changing the physical learning environment on campus is only one aspect of the problem, though it is the most noticeable one. A rapidly growing number of students are learning in off-campus spaces and how good is the digital campus that we offer them?. We need to link together many different learning spaces, organisations and communities, including workplaces and schools. That aspect gets very little investment compared to the physical spaces and it's time to include the digital campus in the overall discussion.