September 2, 2015

Book review: Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds

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Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Gisbert, T. and Bullen, M. (2015) Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds: Strategies and Issues in Higher Education Tarragona Spain: Publicacions Universitat Rovira i Virgili (pdf version available online for 2.84 Euros).

What the book is about

From the Introduction

[The book] examines the teaching and learning process in 3D virtual learning environments from both the theoretical and practical points of view. It is divided into four sections:

  • the first section discusses education in the 21st century from the perspective of learners in a digital society and examines the basic competences students need to respond to the personal and professional challenges they are likely to face. It also explores the issue of quality…..
  • the second section focuses on the educational and teaching strategies higher education professionals must take into account when developing educational processes in technology environments…in such environments simulation will be our best teaching strategy and evaluation our greatest challenge.
  • the third section explores the use of 3D virtual environments in education in general and in higher education in particular….
  • The fourth section examines the range of experiences we consider to be good practice when applying 3D technological environments to the teaching of competences at secondary and tertiary levels of education both nationally and internationally.

However, this doesn’t quite capture for me what the book is really about, so I will discuss a little more closely below some of the themes addressed by individual chapters.

As a point of clarification, I will use the term ‘immersive environments’ as a shorthand to describe simulations, games and virtual reality, a point I will come back to in my comments at the end of this post.

Who wrote it

The book is edited by Mercè Gisbert of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Catalonia, Spain, and Canadian Mark Bullen, formerly of the University of British Columbia and the Commonwealth of Learning. However, the majority of chapters are based on a study (Simul@) funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education and coordinated by Universitat Rovira i Virgili, but involving universities in Spain, Germany, and Portugal, thus providing a valuable insight into the thinking about immersive environments for education in Europe.

Full disclosure: I wrote a short prologue for the book.

Themes covered in the book

Rather than a chapter-by-chapter summary, I have selected certain themes that re-occur through the book.

1. Digital learners

There is a lot of discussion in the book about the nature of digital learners and their ‘readiness’ for learning through digital technologies. In particular, Bullen and Morgan summarise the conflicting views and the research around digital natives and digital immigrants, and provide a more ‘nuanced’ profile of categories of digital learners.  Martinez and Espinal in their chapter provide a detailed description of digital competence and how to assess it. Throughout the book there is emphasis on the need to ensure that learners have the necessary ‘digital competences’ to benefit fully from the use of immersive technologies for learning purposes (although the same applies to teachers, of course). For instance, de Oliveira et al., in their chapter, identify various components of digital competences.

2. Competences

One of the strengths of the book is that several authors make the point that the main educational value of immersive learning environments is for the development of ‘general competences’ such as learning to learn, teamwork, communication, problem solving and decision-making. Astigarraga provides a very good overview of the definition, identification and evaluation of competences, and Isus et al. develop this further with a chapter on evaluating the competences of teamwork and self-management. Larraz and Esteve devote their whole chapter to evaluating digital competence in immersive environments. These chapters will be valuable for anyone interested in competency-based learning, whether or not using immersive learning environments.

3. Key educational principles and affordances of immersive technologies

Another strength of the book is that several authors related the features of immersive environments to possible educational affordances, and the educational principles needed to exploit such affordances. Camacho and Esteve-Gonzáles have a list of 14 educational reasons for using immersive environments for learning and Cervera and Cela-Ranilla have collated from the general research literature about 15 key pedagogical principles ‘to be observed during learning processes’ when using immersive technologies for learning purposes.

4. Planning and implementing virtual learning environments

Towards the end of the book there are several chapters focusing on more practical issues. Marqués et al. describe the planning and implementation of a virtual world built in Sloodle, which combines OpenSim with Moodle, for educating both physical education and business management students. Estevez-González et al. take this further with a chapter on the tools used in Sloodle and the necessary steps needed to integrate OpenSim and Moodle. Lastly, Cela-Ranilla and Estevez-Gonzàlez provide an educational rationale for the design of the project. Garcia and Martin set out a design methodology for an immersive learning environment.

5. Experiences and good practices

The book ends with five chapters that describe actual applications of immersive learning environments, including PolyU developed at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (hotel and tourism management), a review of applications in economics and business courses, the use of an educational platform Virt-UAM developed at Universidad Autònoma de Madrid, and applications in law and psychology, and lastly a review of applications in secondary/high school education.

Critique

First, this is a very welcome and timely publication for several reasons:

  • it sets out very clearly the pedagogical rationale for the use of immersive learning environments;
  • it links immersive technologies very strongly to the development of competences;
  • it provides practical advice on the planning and implementation of immersive learning environments;
  • it provides a welcome European perspective on the topic.

From a personal perspective, it complements very nicely my own open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, where, because of space and time issues, I was unable to give this topic the treatment it deserves. Although not an open textbook, it is very accessible, available online for less than three euros ($3-4).

Given the book is mostly written by people for whom English is a second language, the chapters are clearly and well written, mostly free of the European English associated with European Commission projects.

Nevertheless, the European Commission has adopted the term competence rather than competency, which really irritates me, and this term is used throughout the book, when what the authors are really talking about are skills. Competent is an adjective meaning a minimal capacity to do something; incompetent is more frequently used in English English, and it is used to describe inadequacy. What we are really talking about here are skills, not competence. Skills have no limit, while competence tends to be categorical: you either have it or you don’t, which is why competency-based learning often requires 100% pass-rates. But skills such as problem-solving can get better and better, and that’s what we should be striving for in higher education, not a minimal pass requirement.

The editors have done a good job in ensuring that there is a coherence and progression between the different chapters, always a challenge in a multiple-authored book. However, I would have liked a summary chapter from the editors that pulled all the threads together, and also some more information about the authors.

The books strength and its weakness is the academic nature of the book, with more focus on theory, competences and affordances, and less on the actual technology design issues, although to be fair these start to appear at the back of the book. I would have liked to have seen more integration in the writing throughout the book between theory and practice.

The main omission is any discussion of costs in planning and developing immersive learning environments, which are time demanding of both learners and teachers. There are clear economies of scale that need to be employed to justify the high cost of initial design. If a virtual world and allied teaching strategies can be shared across several courses or even disciplines, the cost becomes more acceptable. There is also a high cost for students in terms of the time needed to master the technology and its educational applications if they only get one course in a virtual world. So it is a pity that there was so little discussion of costs and time in the book, and about the transfer of innovation into mainstream practice, which are significant challenges for the wider adoption of immersive technologies in education.

Nevertheless, this is a book I would highly recommend to all concerned about the implications of technology for learning design. Virtual learning environments hold great promise. We need more concerted efforts in higher education to use immersive learning environments, and this book is an essential guide.

An analysis of the e-Learning Africa 2015 report

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Refugees and iPads 2

Elletson, H. and Burgess, A. (eds.) (2015) The eLearning Africa Report 2015 Berlin, Germany: ICWE GmbH

It is difficult to do justice in a short blog post to this 130 page plus report about the state of e-learning in Africa. I need therefore to be selective. As a result, although the link between primary, secondary and higher education is critical, I will focus in this post mainly on higher education, infrastructure and policy issues raised in the report. However, for anyone concerned about development in Africa, I strongly recommend reading the whole report rather than relying on this analysis. I have put selected extracts from the report in italics.

Editorial

Technology is driving change in Africa and fuelling the economic growth of African economies. There is now an urgent need for radical change. Africa is at a ‘tipping point.’ The upward momentum of the continent’s economies can continue or they can start to slip back. Much will depend on the nature of the change the continent is now prepared to embrace….

Education is the key to Africa’s future and, if it is to do what is expected of it, technology has to be at the heart of it…. 

More attention also needs to be given to the forgotten child of African education – the higher education sector…

It is time to put eLearning at the forefront of the radical change Africa needs.

The state of e-learning readiness in Africa

This chapter from Dr Aida Opoku-Mensah, Special Adviser Post-2015 Development Agenda, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) addresses the following:

Whilst eLearning services and products are freely on offer in Africa, with many interesting initiatives and projects in place, the real question is whether the continent is ready fully to benefit from this revolution….

The key question is whether governments are providing a centrally coordinated eLearning implementation programme that aligns national goals to educational reform and the use of effective technology.

An eLearning strategy should be a subset of an ICT in Education policy that:

  • lays out a roadmap for countries with an eLearning architecture
  • addresses curriculum issues
  • provides for capacity development for teachers across a nation
  • supports administration and the management of systems

Other important aspects of such a strategy should be:

  • infrastructure development that provides affordable connectivity for education
  • content development especially when it comes to procurement of eLearning content, including its contextualisation
  • exploring the prospect of developing a local eLearning business support sector that can sustain any eLearning environment, whilst nurturing innovation and creativity in this sector.

She goes on to argue that:

eLearning becomes possible when there is an integration of ICTs in the education system, which requires a policy and strategy of its own. It may be derived from marrying a national ICT policy with national education goals and strategy. Without this approach, African countries are not and will not be ready.

The neglect of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa

Guy Pfefferman, an economist by background and CEO of the Global Business School Network, points to the neglect of higher education in Africa in the 2000 United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, because of its sole focus on primary education. However, demand for higher education has exceeded supply in Africa, resulting in a rapid growth of private higher education institutions. Funding has not kept pace with enrolment growth, and as a result quality is a huge challenge.

Although HE in Africa is now back on the development agenda, Pfefferman argues that the existing institutions require major reform:

What is necessary in order to meet the need for skills and employment is radical, not gradual, change. eLearning is therefore the only way … of scaling up the reach of good and relevant higher education.

The reality of Internet and phone access in Africa

Firoze Manji, Director of the Pan-African Baraza, which is aimed at reclaiming the past, contesting the present and inventing the future, offers some valuable counter-perspectives to the type of education being offered to Africans and the romanticism about [the Internet] and telephones. 

If one looks at the continent as a whole, something like less than 14% of the population has access to the internet. If you exclude Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and South Africa, you are left with 4% with access to the internet. You are, therefore, only reaching a tiny minority by doing it this way.

With regard to phones:

The majority of people who do have phones in Africa really only use them for text messaging. The cost of sending messages, although it has come down significantly in some countries, in many places costs anywhere between 20 and 35 cents. If you’re on less than a dollar a day then that’s a large proportion.

This theme was also taken up in the article by Nnenna Nwakanma, the cofounder of The Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa.

  • Internet access is priced as a luxury good. Overall, in emerging and developing countries, the cost of entry level broadband (averaging across mobile and fixed line access) exceeds 40% of average income (in many countries it is over 100% of monthly income).
  • 500 MB per month is the minimum needed to access two or three educational videos a week, and fewer than 3% of Africans, 25% of Asians and 30% of Latin Americans, can afford a 500 MB mobile data package.
  • In some cases, schools are trying to meet the costs of eLearning programmes by introducing additional student fees, thus clearly discriminating against the poor.
  • The high cost to connect limits access to information and distance learning opportunities for women in the developing world, which is particularly worrying because the overwhelming majority of adults excluded from formal schooling are women.

Nnenna Nwakanma concludes that:

to unlock the internet revolution in access to knowledge and empowerment we need to ensure that all people can access all of the internet all of the time [and] can use it freely to express their views and seek information without political restrictions….Globally, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should include a commitment to achieving universal and affordable access to broadband internet, including the expansion of free public access facilities, as part of a larger commitment on access to infrastructure. The SDGs must also commit to upholding the rights of all to freedom of expression, information and association, both online and offline.

What is appropriate technology for e-learning in Africa?

Niall Winters, Associate Professor of Learning and New Technologies at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, looks at three rationales for the use of technology for teaching in Africa:

  • to provide students with the skills they need to take part in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century
  • for teachers to improve their teaching practice
  • a means by which self-guided informal learning will flourish.

He argues that each of these rationales require nuanced and in-depth analysis to succeed. He argues that each is ‘problematic’ and the problems that arise from using technology for these purposes need to be addressed; merely providing technology in the hope that these goals will succeed is likely to fail. He uses One Laptop Per Child and the Hole in the Wall projects as examples of the need for a more nuanced approach.

Basic data on ICTs in education in Africa

An overview of the latest ICT in education data is provided by Peter Wallet, Programme Specialist in ICT in education statistics at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The first point he makes is that there is a major data gap in ICT in education data in Africa. In fact in six sub-Saharan countries, no data at all is collected. As a result, Wallet focused on three areas:

  • electrification
  • computer density
  • Internet connectivity.

He found that electricity was available in less than 20% of primary schools in ten countries for which there was data. More than 75% of all schools had electricity in just five countries (Mauritius, Sao Tome, South Africa, Botswana and Djibouti), although in Zambia and Niger over 75% of all secondary schools also had electricity.

The learner-to-computer ratio (LCR) varied considerably across countries, but Wallet reported that computer resources are greatly overstretched in primary education in a number of countries, including the Gambia, where 214 pupils on average share a single computer and in Zambia and São Tomé there are more than 500 pupils per computer.

The primary level LCR in South Africa, Botswana, Rwanda and Mauritius is 90:1, 55:1, 40:1 and 23:1, respectively, with Rwanda’s being relatively low due to the One Laptop Per Child program. Ratios are better in secondary schools (around 54 learners per computer). Wallet comments:

While the LCR is an average, computer resources may, however, be so strained in many schools that time on task is too limited per pupil to allow a meaningful learning experience

Internet availability ranges substantially within sub-Saharan Africa. For example, internet availability is negligible in primary schools in Burkina Faso, Liberia, Madagascar, and Guinea. At the other end of the range, Mauritius has connected over 90% of all its schools, while Botswana has connected all public secondary schools to the internet.

The impact of undersea fibre optic networks on Africa

In 2009, sub-Saharan Africa began to see its first international submarine fibre-optic cable connections. Now the region has multiple cable systems on both coasts, with more countries being connected each year.

Social entrepreneur Steve Song has been working with the online community to map the history and development of African undersea cables. He shares … his continuously updated African Undersea Cables map – April 2015 version – as well as his review of the continent’s 2014 telecom infrastructure development, to paint a picture of where and how the continent is getting connected.

Africa undersea cables 2

Country profiles

The report ends with profiles of each African country.

The country profiles allow for a more detailed view on a country-by-country basis, analysing national trends, policies and best practice, highlighting how each country in Africa uses ICT for education and development.

They show the scale of Africa’s achievement, the obstacles that remain to be overcome and, in many cases, the enormous opportunities that are now within reach of so many people across the continent.

Other topics

There are also interesting sections in the report on the following:

  • Education is the first step toward peaceful societies, by Emmanuel Jal
  • The Cruise of a Thousand Clicks: A poem by Bobana Badisang
  • The power of open knowledge: How Wikimedia is transforming education
  • Teaching teacher trainers to teach online
  • Stop the education blame game and start looking at the bigger picture
  • Spotlight on eLearning in Egypt and eLearning for agriculture in Malawi
  • The eLearning Africa survey
  • Putting mobile learning into context
  • Finding funds

Each one of these is worth a blog post in itself.

My comments

I cannot praise too highly the work of the eLearning Africa project of ICWE GmbH, which also runs the annual eLearning Africa conference. They provide essential documentation and networking regarding what’s happening in e-learning in Africa.

The report highlights the tension between the enormous possibilities of the use of technology for teaching and learning in Africa, and the reality and challenges on the ground. The editors state:

It is already clear that the ambitious aims of the Millennium Development Goals have not been fulfilled. Despite some progress, universal attainment of the goals remains distant. Progress has been uneven too. Some statistics nevertheless stand out: since 1999, for example, the number of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 75% to 144 million in 2012. In the same period, the gender parity gap was halved in primary education. In the 2000’s, the percentage of countries carrying out national assessments of learning almost doubled.

Overall, I came away optimistic about the real progress that has been made and is continuing to be made in education in Africa, and the role that e-learning is beginning to play.

However, e-learning is way down the development food chain and does not exist in a vacuum. First comes political, economic and infrastructure development (particularly electricity), accompanied by investment in and the building of formal education capacity. Then comes teacher training and the development of ICT infrastructure linked to educational goals and policy. Only then is the ecological framework that enables e-learning to be successful in place.

This does not mean that e-learning cannot help bring about radical changes, but it has to be seen as just one part of many highly complex developments that are needed to reduce poverty and provide freedom and well-being to the peoples of Africa. We do Africa a disservice by suggesting that there are simple short cuts through mobile learning, free computers or online learning, although these are all developments that can help speed up change in Africa, provided that the other pieces are also being put in place.

Contact North’s quick update on online learning in Canada

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Contact North recently published a short update on the state of online learning in Canada, which gives a good overview of the following:

  • key Canadian developments and players in online learning and open educational resources
  • five hot points
  • three key trends
  • three challenges
  • three opportunities.

This would make a useful handout to visitors to Canada. Available in both English and French.

Update on online learning in Africa

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One of the AVU’s new distance-learning centres is launched at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Photograph: AVU

One of the AVU’s new distance-learning centres is launched at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Photograph: AVU

Anderson, M. (2015) Out of Africa: e-learning makes further education a reality for tens of thousands The Guardian, May 20

The opening this week of the 10th e-Learning Africa international conference prompted this informative report by the British newspaper, the Guardian, about the state of virtual learning in Africa. I have used this to pull together a number of different strands about online learning developments in Africa.

The e-Learning Africa conference

Only 6% of Africans continue to any form of higher education (compared with a world average of 26%). Thus this year’s e-Learning Africa conference is particularly significant as it is taking place in Addis Ababa, the HQ of the African Union,which has prioritized virtual learning in its long-term development strategy.The conference is also hosted by the government of Ethiopia. Rebecca Stromeyer, one of the driving forces behind e-Learning Africa, has done a tremendous job in using the conference to promote the development of virtual and online learning in Africa.

The African Virtual University

The African Virtual University, a Pan African Intergovernmental Organization established by charter with the mandate of significantly increasing access to quality higher education and training through the innovative use of information communication technologies, is a major force in promoting virtual learning in Africa.

It is still relatively small in terms of student numbers, with a total of 43,000 students since it started in 1997. So far, 19 African countries signed a charter establishing AVU as an intergovernmental organisation. The AVU offered its first MOOC to 1,700 African students in March this year. Perhaps more significantly it is opening 29 new distance learning centres in 21 African countries at a cost of $200,000 each.

The AVU at the moment does not offer its own degrees, but works in partnership with other African universities to deliver online programs across Africa, sometimes in partnership also with foreign universities such as Indiana University in the USA and Laval University in Canada. AVU plans to start offering its own degrees next year.

UNISA

South Africa has been a leader in distance education in Africa for many years, with over 300,000 students a year currently enrolled in UNISA (the University of South Africa), but although it has some programs offered online, it has been somewhat reluctant to invest heavily in online technologies, because as an open university it has been concerned with the high cost and difficulties of access to the Internet for many Africans.

However, the AVU is considering making lectures accessible on mobile phones, which would tap into Africa’s estimated 112-million smartphones, and UNISA will need to move more quickly if it is to stay relevant in South African online and open education..

Fibre optics

Another major factor that is impacting on virtual learning in Africa is the spread of fibre optics. The first map shows the submarine networks and their international links and the second shows the internal, terrestrial fibre optic networks.

African submarine fibre optic networks Image: © African Politics Portal, 2010

African submarine fibre optic networks
Image: © African Politics Portal, 2010 

African terrestrial fibre optic networks Image: AfTerFibre: https://manypossibilities.net/afterfibre/

African terrestrial fibre optic networks
Image: AfTerFibre: https://manypossibilities.net/afterfibre/

The key factor here is capacity. Fibre optics enable much higher Internet speeds and bandwidth than mobile technologies (although of course the two will be used in combination) but the end result will be much cheaper Internet connectivity in Africa in the coming years.

Comment

I hesitate to suggest solutions for Africa – I’m too far away and the best solutions will be African originated. However, here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth.

Those institutions and organisations that are moving now into virtual learning will have a major competitive advantage as Internet access widens and the cost of access drops dramatically. Bakary Diallo, the rector of the AVU, believes that the AVU can drive down the cost of higher education in Africa, without losing quality. Timing will be critical though – too early a move and the large market will not be ready; too late and other providers will have moved in.

The key challenges though will be the following:

  • appropriate content: African developed OERs (such as OER Africa’s and the OERu’s) will be an essential component of a low cost, high quality, virtual learning system in Africa; at the same time, actual courses and programs available online will also be critically important and this will need substantial investment, mainly in teachers and instructional designers;
  • political recognition of the integrity and quality of virtual learning: African politicians have been very conservative in the past in recognising the value of online and distance learning. Nigeria, the major economic nation now in Africa, for instance, has almost no publicly funded online learning at a higher education level., because the government won’t recognise such qualifications. It is good that 19 countries have signed on to the AVU and the African Union has made virtual learning a priority. This though now has to be accepted by other African countries, and policies and strategies for virtual learning and above all recognition of qualifications now need rapid implementation by African governments;
  • institutional management. Even in highly developed countries, university administrators have struggled to manage well the development and maintenance of online learning. African universities will struggle even more with this challenge;
  • lack of qualified professionals: Africa has few professional instructional designers, although countries such as Kenya do have very good IT professionals and web designers. However, the private sector can offer much better salaries;
  • lack of funding: there is a high cost of investment in adopting online learning, and it will take political courage to put aside the funds needed at the level of magnitude to drive real change. However, this is no longer impossible for many African countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, whose economies are rapidly growing. It is therefore more a question of political will than resources, for at least some African countries, although others will take much longer to catch up;
  • corruption: this has two aspects, open corruption, where government funds for online learning are diverted to individuals (usually politicians, but also sometimes local administrators), but probably much more significant will be the influence of major technology-based multinational corporations, who will lobby for money to be spent on (their) technology rather than on the human resources needed to sustain online learning (i.e. well qualified teachers).

Lastly, the challenge for Africa is to walk two paths at the same time. Online learning should not be used as a replacement for a high quality campus-based higher education system but as an integral part of a comprehensive system of higher education that includes face-to-face teaching, blended learning and fully online learning. Getting that balance right will be a mjor challenge.

Overall, though, I am very optimistic that the future belongs to Africa, and that online learning will be a critical component of that future.

Rethinking learning spaces in a digital age: an example from Singapore

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Nanyang Technlogical University's new Learning Hub

Nanyang Technological University’s new Learning Hub

Hohenadel, K. (2015) Singapore’s New “Learning Hub” Rethinks University Classroom Design in the Internet Age SLATE, March 12

I have written in earlier posts about the need to rethink learning spaces as more and more institutions move to blended and hybrid learning. This design by Britain’s Thomas Heatherwick (who designed the Googleplex in Silicon Valley) incorporates ’56 “tutorial rooms” [that] don’t have corners or obvious fronts or backs and provide students with open spaces and terraces for collaboration and breaks.

In their description of the project, Heatherwick Studios state:

The purpose of a university is to foster togetherness and sociability, so that students can meet their fellow entrepreneurs, scientists and colleagues in a space that encourages collaboration.

Another inspiration for the hub was a wish to break down the traditional square forward-facing classrooms with a clear front and hierarchy, and move to a corner-less space, where teachers and students mix on a more equal basis.

In this model the students work together around shared tables, with teacher as facilitator and partner in the voyage of learning, rather than ‘master’ executing a top-down model of pedagogy.

The goal was to create a space that promotes accessibility, serendipity, and connectivity on a human scale.

It’s good to see an architect trying to create a building that supports the ‘magic of the campus’ in a digital age. I would have liked a little more detail though about the technology within the spaces, such as screens for sharing work.

It will be interesting to see if the design actually leads to changes in teaching methods, or whether faculty try to impose the hierarchical model of lecturing on these spaces.

Lastly, students seem to be very good at reducing architectural postulations to their bare essentials; students have already labelled the Learning Hub ‘dim sum’, because of its similarity to stacked dim sum steamer baskets.

Thanks to Clayton Wright for directing me to this.

dim sum steamer baskets 2