May 22, 2015

UBC develops an institutional strategy for learning technologies

Listen with webReader
The Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast, Italy

Bates, S. et al. (2015) UBC’s Learning Technology Ecosystem: Developing a Shared Vision, Blueprint & Roadmap Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

I’ve not been posting much recently as I am taking a three week holiday in Europe (the photo is my view as I write this), but this report from the Provost’s Office at UBC is too significant to ignore.

What is it about?

The report basically sets out a vision and a set of strategies for the future development and management of learning technologies at UBC, a large Tier-1 research university in Canada. Although produced by a small Project Committee, it is the outcome of extensive discussions throughout the university and also externally with other institutions with successful learning technology strategies.

What is in the report?

1. Recognition of learning technology as an eco-system

A learning technology ecosystem represents faculty, staff and students interacting with their learning technology environment, composed of tools and services. There are dependencies in this ecosystem; between technologies, between technologies and services but also between users, technologies and services. The ecosystem is self-organizing, dynamic, constantly changing and evolving. Technologies are birthed, and they also are removed as new ones take their place.

2. Assessment of the current state of learning technologies

UBC uses a very interesting way of assessing the current state of learning technology within an institution, using the following conceptual framework:

UBC's current state assessment process framework

UBC’s current state assessment process framework

This has enabled the team to identify gaps in services, governance, funding and infrastructure.

Another interesting outcome of this process is that the report estimates that UBC is currently spending almost $10 million annually on supporting its LMS, of which 78% is incurred at a Faculty/academic department level, mainly in technical support for the LMS, the rest centrally, including licensing. Thus one technology tool is costing almost as much as the rest of the LT eco-system.

2. Vision and principles for LTs at UBC

UBC's LT vision and principles 2

3. Functions and services

Working group members identified functional gaps in the LT ecosystem, along with their relative importance. Similarly, members of the Working Group identified both phase-specific support required during LT life cycles, as well as support services required across the lifecycle. They identified which of the gaps required the most improvement and also prioritized them according to their relative importance.

4. Support models

UBC uses both central and local/departmental support models and because of the size and complexity of the organization, no major changes were suggested for support models (but see Governance below)

5. Governance

The working group found significant shortcomings in the current governance structure for LTs. In particular there was inadequate academic input into priorities for the selection and use of LT tools and services, and the student voice was not heard. The Working Group proposed a stronger governance model as a result.

6. Other issues

The report goes on to cover a number of other issues, such as a roadmap and success metrics and resource issues such as the need for better learning analytics and increased bandwidth.

Why this report?

Good question, Tony, and here I will have to speculate a little, as I no longer work at UBC. UBC has a long history in both distance education and learning technology development. In the early 1990s it received government funding of over $2 million to explore the use of learning technologies, one outcome of which was WebCT, the first learning management system to be widely adopted. Blackboard Inc eventually bought WebCT, and UBC still uses Blackboard Connect as its LMS.

In the early 2000s,  a ‘nascent’ governance structure for learning technologies was suggested, and in recent years governance has focused mainly on the transition from Blackboard Vista to Blackboard Connect. However, over the last couple of years, UBC has also developed a major flexible learning strategy which is now being extensively implemented throughout the university. There has been considerable frustration and dissatisfaction with the implementation of Connect which has been getting in the way of the flexible learning strategy, so I see this report as a way of fixing that disconnect (sorry for the pun.) Or, as the report puts it:

Faculty desire a greater choice of tools, so that the one with the best fit for the pedagogical purpose can be selected….the functional footprint of the LMS is shrinking over time though the footprint of the entire [LT] ecosystem is arguably increasing. We anticipate a shrinking LMS footprint while still envisaging the need for a core within the ecosystem.

Comment

Although specific to UBC, this report will resonate with many other institutions. It should be essential reading for any Provost concerned with moving their institution forward into digital learning, as institutions struggle with legacy technology systems. The report adopts a clear, evidence-based analytical approach to sensitive issues around management, technology choice, and pedagogy, even if occasionally the business-speak language grates a little.

So back to my glass of Prosecco on the sun-drenched terrace.

EDUCAUSE looks beyond the (current) LMS environment: is it a future we want?

Listen with webReader
The future of educational technology? Image" © biotech01, DeviantArt

The future of educational technology?
Image: © biotech01, DeviantArt

Brown, M, Dehoney, J., Millichap, N. (2015) The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: A Report on Research EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative

What is it about?

EDUCAUSE has published a very interesting white paper that:

explores the gaps between current learning management tools and a digital learning environment that could meet the changing needs of higher education.

What problem does the paper address?

The LMS has been highly successful in enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself. Initial LMS designs have been both course- and instructor-centric, which is consonant with the way higher education viewed teaching and learning through the 1990s.

Higher education is moving away from its traditional emphasis on the instructor, however, replacing it with a focus on learning and the learner. Higher education is also moving away from a standard form factor for the course, experimenting with a variety of course models.

What solution does the paper propose?

A next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE):

although the NGDLE might include a traditional LMS as a component, it will not itself be a single application like the current LMS or other enterprise applications. Rather, the NGDLE will be an ecosystem of sorts….

It must address five domains of core functionality:

  • Interoperability and Integration
  • Personalization
  • Analytics, Advising, and Learning Assessment
  • Collaboration
  • Accessibility and Universal Design

All five are core functional dimensions of the NGDLE, meaning that progress toward the full realization of the NGDLE is possible only if the whole set is addressed…..

We will need to take what might be called a “Lego approach.” Indeed, if the mash-up is the way that individuals and institutions will assemble their own NGDLE, then one way to enable that model is to populate the landscape with a set of tools and resources that are NGDLE conformant. This would result in a toolbox of applications, content, and platforms that could be assembled in custom ways. The key is defining what is meant by “NGDLE conformance.” Legos work because of a design specification that ensures the pieces will interlock, while enabling a wide variety of component parts. For the NGDLE to succeed as we describe here, a similar set of specifications and services will need to be defined that constitute the conformance needed to make the Lego approach workable….

We are suggesting an NGDLE-conformant standard or specification, which would be based on adherence to a coordinated set of component standards. Once such a standard is in place, future investments and development efforts could be designed around the NGDLE specifications.

The culture of higher education teaching and learning must evolve to encourage and even demand the realization of the NGDLE. We need to adopt “NGDLE thinking,” whereby the functional domain set described above feels to us like a natural fit for any learning environment.

Comments

First, this is one of the most interesting papers on the future of digital learning that I have read for some time. I have had to shorten it considerably but I highly recommend reading the whole paper carefully. It contains many interesting ideas and a useful set of resources that could be directly incorporated into current teaching and learning. This is not surprising as it is  the result of ‘consultations with more than 70 community thought leaders’.

Now who am I to argue with 70 community thought leaders? Certainly I wouldn’t disagree with the shortcomings of current learning management systems, and I find Lego absolutely awesome, along with collaboration and common technical standards. I myself have previously reported that LMSs are a necessary evil, but need to evolve.

But on the second reading of the paper I started getting a really uncomfortable feeling. I’ll try and unpack that discomfort.

1. Be careful what you wish for

First, this seems to be much too much of a top-down approach to developing technology-based learning environments for my taste. Standards are all very well, but who will set these standards? Just look at the ways standards are set in technology: international committees taking many years, with often powerful lobby groups and ‘rogue’ corporations trying to impose new or different standards.

Is that what we want in education? Or will EDUCAUSE go it alone, with the rest of the world outside the USA scrambling to keep up, or worse, trying to develop alternative standards or systems? (Just watch the European Commission on this one.) Attempts to standardize learning objects through meta-data have not had much success in education, for many good reasons, but EDUCAUSE is planning something much more ambitious than this.

2. Is LEGO the right metaphor for a learning environment?

A next generation digital learning environment where all the bits fit nicely together seems far too restrictive for the kinds of learning environments we need in the future. What about teaching activities and types of learning that don’t fit so nicely?

We need actually to move away from the standardization of learning environments. We have inherited a largely industrial and highly standardized system of education from the 19th century designed around bricks and mortar, and just as we are able to start breaking way from rigid standardization EDUCAUSE wants to provide a digital educational environment based on standards.

I have much more faith in the ability of learners, and less so but still a faith in teachers and instructors, to be able to combine a wide range of technologies in the ways that they decide makes most sense for teaching and learning than a bunch of computer specialists setting technical standards (even in consultation with educators).

3. Model educational technology on human behaviour, not on computing

I am becoming increasingly disturbed by the tendency of software engineers to force humans to fit technology systems rather than the other way round (try flying with Easyjet or Ryanair for instance). There may be economic reasons to do this in business enterprises, but we need in education, at least, for the technology to empower learners and teachers, rather than restrict their behaviour to fit complex technology systems. The great thing about social media, and the many software applications that result from it, is its flexibility and its ability to be incorporated and adapted to a variety of needs, despite or maybe even because of its lack of common standards.

When I look at EDUCAUSE’s specifications for its ‘NGDLE-conformant standards’, each on its own makes sense, but when combined they become a monster of parts. Do I want teaching decisions influenced by student key strokes or time spent on a particular learning object, for instance? Behind each of these activities will be a growing complexity of algorithms and decision-trees that will take teachers and instructors further way from knowing their individual students and making intuitive and inductive decisions about them. Although humans make many mistakes, they are also able to do things that computers can’t. We need technology to support that kind of behaviour, not try to replace it.

4. Read the paper and make up your own mind

I think that despite my concerns this paper is really important. It offers one possible future for educational technology that we need to consider very carefully. I may be over-reacting in my response. You must draw your own conclusions from the paper – as I know you will. But do read it if you care about the future of education.

The U.K. election and the implications for higher education

Listen with webReader
© Steve Marvell, Flickr

© Steve Marvell, Flickr

I have been taking a break from blogging since I finished my online book, Teaching in a Digital Age.

I’ve just started a four week holiday in Europe, and happened to be in England visiting family during the recent election, which the Conservatives won reasonably comfortably, so they are not dependent on votes from other parties to govern.

The state of the union

The election highlighted a very disunited United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party swept Scotland, winning 56 of 59 seats, the Conservatives won England, Northern Ireland was split between Protestant and Catholic parties, and Labour won Wales, although with fewer seats than before.

Labour did much more poorly than expected, and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative’s coalition partner in the previous government, were demolished, going from 57 MPs to eight. The leaders of three opposition parties (Labour, Lib Dems and the UK Independent Party) all resigned.

Implications for higher education

What does this mean for higher education in the U.K.? Times Higher Education has offered the following analysis:

  • the Conservatives are committed to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by 2017. If Britain pulls out, UK universities will miss out on the current £1.2 billion ($2.15 billion) in research grants they currently receive from the EU;
  • the Conservatives are likely to raise the current £9000 ($16,000) annual university tuition fees even further;
  • tighter immigration policies will result in fewer international students;
  • a likely move to funding by results, in terms of (so far undefined) quality, which probably means more funding to Oxford, Cambridge and a few other elite UK universities, and less for the rest
  • continued funding support for ‘world-leading science’.

Implications for Canada

There are no obvious implications, but Conservative Party leaders in Canada, the UK and Australia do talk to one another and exchange ideas, and there are reasonable grounds to fear that the U.K. tuition fee system could influence the Harper government’s thinking, seeing that it did not prevent the U.K. Conservatives from being re-elected. However, the devolved provincial system in Canada offers some protection from extremist policies in education.

The main lesson though is likely to be political. The devastation of the Lib Dems, who propped up the Conservative minority government through a formal coalition, with some cabinet seats for the Lib Dems, was a direct result of supporting votes when in government that were contrary to the policies and principles on which they were elected.

Many English voters appeared to be scared by a media blitz that suggested that Labour would form a coalition with the Scottish National Party, so switched their votes to the Conservatives, which must be a significant message for Thomas Mulcair, dependent as he is on many seats in Quebec. UKIP, the ultra-nationalist party, took as many votes from Labour as it did from the Conservatives and failed to gain a toe-hold in Parliament, despite getting over 12 per cent of the votes.

Most of all though the Labour platform has moved so far to the right that it reflected a watered-down Conservative platform, a kinder form of free market politics. In fact Labour offered for the many voters in England who are bitterly opposed to the Conservative policies few real alternatives. Austerity and a balanced budget was the main economic plank of both parties. Distinguishing their economic policies from the Conservatives is probably going to be a significant issue for the Canadian Liberals, if they are to have a hope of winning.

In the meantime, Britain’s post-imperial decline seems set to accelerate, as the divide between rich and poor grows even greater, and regional forces start to tear it apart.

More thoughts on artificial intelligence and human learning

Listen with webReader

ex machina 2

Several events have prompted this reflection.

Man shoots computer

I have a new hero and his name is Lucas Hinch. Frustrated with his Dell PC, he took it into the street in Colorado Springs and shot it eight times. The police were summoned and later in court his firearm was confiscated, but Hinch is reported as saying: ‘It was worth it. It was glorious. Angels sung on high.’

Ex Machina

I have just seen a very good new movie, Ex Machina, which is about Nathan, a carefully selected young company program developer charged with Turing-testing, i,.e. evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of an alluring female robot called AVA. AVA features artificial intelligence developed mainly by structuring search engine data and is designed by Caleb, the reclusive CEO of a large Internet search engine company.

Now this is a movie, and a very good one, so it has to be entertaining and in movies, anything is possible, but it is worth seeing because of the intelligent script and in particular the interaction between both Nathan and the robot, and between Nathan and Caleb, where they discuss the nature and the (possible) potential of AI.

Thoughts prompted by these events

1. Dream on, AI enthusiasts

The first thought is how far we still have to go from what is possible in the present to what the expectations of AI are in the future. AI is nowhere close to achieving the kinds of thinking and emotional intelligence demonstrated in Ex Machina. (I am sure there will be someone who will want to correct me on this – go for it.)

Although we are increasingly dependent on computers, they are still frustratingly incapable of doing what seem to humans to be the simplest procedures. Take corporate voice messaging, for instance. Now if I had a gun, and I could find a physical embodiment of telephone companies’ voice messaging, I would take it out into the street and shoot it. The only reason I am calling a company is because I can’t get standard information or a resolution to a matter through the corporate web site. If the best AI can do (and these companies have the money and motivation to have the best) is to provide set answers to a limited number of predetermined questions that rarely if ever address the reason you have called, then we are not just at the pre-human stage of AI development but at the stage of creating primordial bacteria (which is no mean feat in itself).

Have you ever tried Siri? It is pathetically limited (although the voice is very nice). However, if anyone is stupid enough to fall in love with Siri, as in the movie ‘Her’ (one of the most sentimentally awful movies I have ever seen) then they really do deserve whatever comes to them.

2. Current models of AI are just wrong

Since AI tends to be developed by computer scientists, they tend to use models of the brain based on how computers or computer networks work (since of course it will be a computer that has to operate the AI). Ex Machina got it right though in suggesting that a completely different kind of hardware (what Caleb called wetware) will be needed that better matches the way that human brains actually work. Thus the basis of AI needs to reflect the biological rather than mechanical foundation of human behaviour.

However, I am not convinced that Caleb’s software solution of modelling human behaviour through the analysis of big data captured through search engines will work, either, because despite the wide range of uses of search engines by humans, they still nowhere near capture the full range of human behaviour. People do behave differently on the Internet than in other areas of their lives. While hundreds of thousands play violent games or use online pornography, for example, this is not reflected (despite impressions given by the media) in terms of actual behaviour in real world contexts. Most humans have the ability to separate reality from fantasy, and online behaviour is different from behaviour in other contexts.

3. Do we want robots to be like people?

This is the question that really needs to be answered, and my view is that the answer is unequivocally ‘no.’ Several excellent movies such as Space Odyssey 2001 as well as Ex Machina indirectly raise this question, and the answer is always negative for the future of human life. There are aspects of human life that are better done by machines, such as coal mining, booking airline tickets or even housework, but decision-making and ethics for example are best left to admittedly imperfect human beings, because decision-making and ethics need to privilege the admittedly self-interests of humans, not those of robots (or more likely, large corporations).

One reason of course that there is so much interest in AI is that corporations want to reduce the costs of human workers by replacing them with machines. There comes a point though where naked free market interests work against the general human condition. It is no coincidence that the growing gap between the richest 1% and the rest of the world parallels the increased use of automation. The benefits of automation are not shared equally.

When we come to education in particular, the main cost is that of teachers and instructors. But learning is not only a complex activity where only a relatively minor part of the process can be effectively automated, it is an intensely human activity, that benefits enormously from personal relationships and social interaction.

4. What should we use AI for?

We need to treat technology as tools, not autonomous systems. Technology is a means to an end and the end must be determined by human beings. If we take education as an example, technology can be immensely helpful in supporting teachers, learners and learning. It can be used to make teaching more efficient, so long as it does not attempt to replace the relational aspects of teaching and learning. What it should not be used for is to replace the human element in teaching, or even, in the long term, learners themselves.

5. The need to establish rules and guidelines for AI

Although we are already seeing some of the social consequences of an unequal distribution of wealth resulting from the automation of human activities, we have been lucky so far in a sense that AI has proved to be so difficult to extend beyond very simple procedures. We have not yet had to face some of the ethical, social and security issues that will arise if AI becomes more successfully developed. (The first area is likely to be in transportation, with the automation of driving.)

However, as many science fiction writers have predicted, we are probably getting to the point where we now need some controls, rules, guidelines and procedures that will help determine the limits of AI in general, and computer-based learning in particular, in terms of where and how AI-controlled automation should be applied. In education, this means using computers to support teachers in the design and delivery of teaching and learning, in assessment of ‘routine’ and predictable forms of learning, and in indicating students at risk, and possible causes and actions to be taken. In all cases, though, these applications of computing need to be under the direct control of either learners or teachers, or increasingly by both.

What I foresee is something like a Charter of Rights for humans in a world where AI is not only prevalent but also powerful (but then I’m an incorrigeable optimist).

In the meantime, go and see Ex Machina, and enjoy it as a very interesting movie, even if some of the assumptions about the future are likely to be wrong – and some horribly right. For some interesting discussion of the morality of AVA, go to: IMDb

References

Rad, C. (2015) MAN SHOOTS DELL COMPUTER 8 TIMES AFTER GETTING BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH IGN, 22 April

Problems with the use of images in open textbooks

Listen with webReader

If you have downloaded my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ in pdf or Modi format for the iPad or Kobo, you may have noticed that many of the images I have liberally used throughout the book do not fit on the page or have become separated from their ‘frame’ (the green and black lines before and after the images), in the downloaded versions.

The problem

Here is an example (I have reduced the size of both images):

This is the html version that you would read by going to the book site (http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/)

Original html web version

Original html web version

Nice, isn’t it? And this is how it appears in the pdf version:

pdf version

pdf version

You can see the image has been removed from the frame and dropped into the next page.

The same kind of thing happens in the iPad and Kindle versions, only worse, because the screen size is smaller. I realise this is not a unique problem and one faced every day when moving materials to mobile devices.

The reason

This happens primarily because the html version read on computer screens or laptops scrolls, while the pdf and mobile device versions are paginated. What fits nicely on a scrolled screen does not always fit a paginated version because the image is too large to fit within the remaining page space, so it is bounced to the next page. This is made worse by my having artistically framed the images. The frames are independent objects from the image though so do not move with the image when it is ‘bounced’.

Solutions

OK, I should have known this would happen, but I didn’t until after I finished the book. (This is one form of experiential learning that I don’t recommend). One way to minimise (but not eliminate by any means) the problem would be to avoid putting in frames for the images (the frames were suggested by a highly professional graphic designer) and keeping the in-text images much smaller. However, reducing the size of the images is not always desirable, especially with complex or detailed images.

In the end, it is a software problem needing a software solution, such as the ability to integrate frames around images, and to resize images to fit the pagination or to move paragraphs around the image until it fits the page.

The dilemma

So what should I do now? The html version works beautifully, but even reducing the size of graphics and moving them won’t solve the problem for the exported versions, because each exported version is different in the way it handles the lay-out. I could go through the whole book and remove the frames but there are over 100 images and graphics throughout the book.

Should I leave the frames? I can’t leave them on the html version and remove them from the other versions because the other versions are direct and complete exports of the html version. I also can’t edit the pdf version independently of the html version without creating a whole shadow site.

Is there a way to ‘fit’ frames to images in WordPress? if there is please let me know!

Does it matter?

This is where I really need your advice. OK, so it isn’t perfect as a pdf or on an iPad, but is it good enough? My wife says I’m crazy to worry about this (‘It’s the content that matters’), and my best friend accused me of being a compulsive-obsessive personality (that’s what good friends are there for, to tell you the truth), and he said if people don’t like it, they can use their laptop, but my wife and my friend are not the audience for this book. You are, and if this is a problem for you, I need to know.

So what’s your advice on this? Don’t worry about it, or find a solution, and if so, what?