May 28, 2015

Next steps for the European HE system

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The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

Klemenčič, M. and Ashwin, P. (2015) What’s next for Europe? Inside Higher Ed, May 26

As my holiday in Italy draws to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to do a short blog on developments in European higher education. I look to my many readers in Europe to comment and correct me as appropriate.

What the article is about

This is an interesting article about future policy for European Higher Education, following the Bologna Process Ministerial Conference on May 14-15 in Yerevan, Armenia. (Sigh! Yes, you are right, Armenia is not yet part of the European Union, but it is a member of the Council of Europe, and, since 2005 has been part of the Bologna Process, which sets out pan-European strategy for higher education.)

This article gives a pretty good overview of what the Bologna Process has achieved to date, and also what it has not achieved, and also gives a good description of where European education ministers want to go in the future, in terms of pan-European policy.

The achievements of the Bologna Process

The Bologna Process is:

a voluntary convergence and coordinated reform of higher education systems across the member countries of the European Union and beyond. The aims have been to promote the mobility of students and staff and to enhance the quality and international competitiveness of European higher education.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) now has 48 members, including non-European Union countries such as the Russian Federation, Belarus, Armenia and the Ukraine.

Its successes include:

  • a common three-cycle degree structure across countries;
  • student mobility: students can transfer course credits acquired at one institution to any another institution in the EHEA;
  • European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance and the European Register of Quality Assurance Agencies, ensuring that all countries have compatible internal and external quality assurance procedures.

This of course raises the question: If the Europeans can enable students to transfer seamlessly between 4,000 higher education institutions across Europe and beyond (and they do, in droves), why is it so difficult to do this in Canada, and particularly within Ontario, for God’s sake?

One of the great scandals of Canadian higher education is the refusal of Ontario universities or the Ontario government to put in place any form of automatic transfer of credits. (Yeah, there are seven universities in Ontario that have a paper agreement amongst themselves, but the reality is that it is NOT an automatic process even between these seven institutions).

BC and Alberta have had a mutual transfer system in place for many years, but the only thing more difficult than moving from a university in BC (or from anywhere else in Canada) to a university in Ontario is taking a bottle of BC wine with you to Ontario (yes, that is actually illegal in Canada). Talk about provincialism.

The challenges of the Bologna Process

Like anything to do with the European Union, excessive bureaucracy is a major challenge. In particular, to quote from the article:

much of the energy of the Bologna Follow-Up Group, the governing body of the process, has been channeled into detailed questions about decision structures and processes. The Bologna Process needed a new sense of purpose to bring the governments together and re-energize international cooperation within the EHEA. And this indeed happened [at the Yerevan conference].

What’s driven this new sense of purpose is youth unemployment:

The unemployment rate for people 29 and younger in the European Union is 19 percent, the highest in at least 10 years. In Spain, the figure was 53 percent in November 2014; it was 49 percent, in Greece, followed closely by Croatia and Italy. Higher education is seen as one key pillar in Europe’s vision to fight unemployment among young people, preventing them from becoming a “lost generation” and source of social upheaval. The communiqué emphasizes the need to ensure that graduates possess competencies that will make them employable.

The article lists several ways this is to be done, such as:

  • a better dialogue between higher education institutions and employers,
  • a good balance between theoretical and practical components in curricula, and
  • continued support for international mobility for study and work placement.

The authors though acknowledge that:

higher education alone, of course, cannot solve the problem that is so clearly linked to economic growth and also labor regulations.

They might also have mentioned the failed economic policy of austerity, which is a major cause of youth unemployment in Europe.

A second objective is to make European higher education more inclusive. A particular concern is the low participation rate of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in European higher education, and the possible radicalization of immigrant youth:

three types of mobility are accentuated in the communiqué: for students and staff from conflict areas, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and mobility of teacher education students.

The third objective is to improve the quality of teaching and learning in universities and colleges. The authors note that it is surprising that it has taken so long for this to emerge as a priority for this first time at the Armenia conference:

..the quality of teaching and learning is far from satisfactory and varies significantly across European systems and institutions…the majority of countries do not have a strategy for the advancement of teaching and learning or specific structures to support it. At best, higher education institutions are developing their own units for supporting excellence in teaching and learning or funding teaching development programs. At worse, higher education teachers are left to their own devices to improve their teaching (or not) when alerted by the outcomes of student satisfaction surveys.

In Yerevan, the ministers have committed to support higher education institutions in pedagogical innovation, exploring the use of digital technologies for learning and teaching, and in better linking learning and teaching with research, innovation and entrepreneurship. You have to wonder though why it took almost 20 years to get these items on the agenda.

What next?

The authors of the article are surprisingly optimistic that these new policies will be successfully implemented by the governments of member states. However, by 2018, the set target gate for implementation, both Greece and Britain may well have left the European Union, and I will be surprised if countries such as Italy, the Ukraine and Bulgaria will have made much progress towards these objectives, because of structural and economic difficulties.

Nevertheless, on balance, despite the stifling bureaucracy of the European Union, and the political and economic challenges faced by many European countries, the Bologna Process has enabled many European universities to improve their standards and to modernise, and is likely to continue to do so into the future.

One of the University of Siena's student computer labs

One of the University of Siena’s student computer labs

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.

Lessons about researching technology-enhanced instruction

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Meiori, Amalfi Coast

Meiori, Amalfi Coast – when it’s not raining

Lopes, V. and Dion, N. (2105) Pitfalls and Potential: Lessons from HEQCO-Funded Research on Technology-Enhanced Instruction Toronto ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Since it’s raining heavily here on the Amalfi Coast today for the first time in months, I might as well do another blog post.

What this report is about

HEQCO (the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) is an independent advisory agency funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities to provide recommendations for improving quality, accessibility, inter-institutional transfer, system planning, and effectiveness in higher education in Ontario. In 2011, HEQCO:

issued a call for research projects related to technology-enhanced instruction…. Now that the technology studies have concluded and that most have been published, this report draws some broader conclusions from their methods and findings.

What are the main conclusions?

1. There is no clear definition of what ‘technology’ means or what it refers to in many studies that investigate its impact on learning:

One assumes that the nature of the tools under investigation would have an impact on research design and on the metrics being measured. Yet little attention is paid to this problem, which in turns creates challenges when interpreting study findings.

2. There is no clear definition of blended or hybrid learning:

The proportion of online to face-to-face time, as well as the nature of the resources presented online, can both differ considerably. In a policy context, where we may wish to discuss issues across institutions or at a system level, the lack of consensus definitions can be particularly disruptive. In this respect, a universal definition of blended learning, applied consistently to guide practice across all colleges and universities, would be helpful.

3. Students need orientation to/training in the use of the technologies used in their teaching: they are not digital natives in the sense of being intuitively able to use technology for study purposes.

4. Instructors and teaching assistants should also be trained on the use and implementation of technology.

5. The simple presence of technology will rarely enhance a classroom. Instead, some thought has to go into integrating it effectively.

6. New technologies should be implemented not for their own sake but with a specific goal or learning outcome in mind.

7. Many of the HEQCO-funded studies, including several of those with complex study designs and rigorous methodologies, concluded that the technology being assessed had no significant effect on student learning.

8. Researchers in the HEQCO-funded studies faced challenges encouraging student participation, which often led to small sample sizes in situations where classroom-based interventions already limited the potential pool of participants.

9. The integration of technology in postsecondary education has progressed to such a point that we no longer need to ask whether we should use technology in the classroom, but rather which tool to use and how.

10. There is no single, unified, universally accepted model or theory that could be applied to ensure optimal learning in all educational settings.

Comment

I need to be careful in my comments, not because I’m ticked off with the weather here (hey, I live in Vancouver – we know all about rain), but because I’ve spent most of my working life researching technology-enhanced instruction, so what appears blindingly obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to others. So I don’t really know where to start in commenting on this report, except to say I found it immensely depressing.

Let me start by saying that there is really nothing in this report that was not known before the research was done (in other words, if they had asked me, I could have told HEQCO what to expect). I am a great supporter of action or participant research, because the person doing the research learns a great deal. But it is almost impossible to generalise such results, because they are so context-specific, and because the instructor is not usually trained in educational research, there are often – as with these studies – serious methodological flaws.

Second, trying to define technology is like trying to catch a moonbeam. The whole concept of defining a fixed state so that generalisations can be made to the same fixed state is entirely the wrong kind of framework for researching technology influences, because the technology is constantly changing. (This is just another version of the objectivist vs constructivist debate.)

So one major problem with this research is HEQCO’s expectations that the studies would lead to generalisations that could be applied across the system. If HEQCO wants that, it needs to use independent researchers and fund the interventions on a large enough scale – which of course means putting much more money into educational research than most governments are willing to risk. It also means sophisticated design that moves away from matched, controlled comparisons to in-depth case studies, using though rigorous qualitative research methodology.

This illustrates a basic problem with most educational research. It is done on such a small scale that the interventions are unlikely to lead to significant results. If you tweak just a little bit of a complex environment, any change is likely to be swamped by changes in other variables.

The second problem in most of the studies appears to be the failure to link technology-based interventions to changes in learning outcomes. In other words, did the use of technology lead to a different kind of learning? For instance, did the application of the technology lead students to think more critically or manage information well rather than reproduce or memorize what was being taught before? So another lesson is that you have to ask the right kind of research questions that focus on different kinds of learning outcomes.

Thus it is pointless to ask whether technology-based interventions lead to better learning outcomes than classroom teaching. There are too many other variables than technology to provide a definitive answer. The question to ask instead is: what are the required conditions for successful blended or hybrid learning, and what counts as success? The last part of the question means being clear on what different learning outcomes are being sought.

Indeed, there is a case to be made that it may be better not to set firm outcomes before the intervention, but to provide enough flexibility in the teaching context to see what happens when instructors and students have choices to make about technology use. This might mean looking backwards rather than forwards by identifying what most would deem highly successful technology interventions, then working back to see what conditions enabled this success.

But fiddling with the research methods won’t produce much if the intervention is too small scale. Nineteen little, independent studies are great for the instructors, but if we are to learn things than can be generalized, we need fewer but larger, more sophisticated, and more integrated studies. In the meantime, we are no further in being able to improve the design of blended or hybrid learning than before these research studies were done, which is why I am depressed.

UBC develops an institutional strategy for learning technologies

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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?

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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

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© 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

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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

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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?

Defining skills for a digital age

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Video games designer 2

ACT (2105) Unpacking “Career Readiness” Iowa City IA: Act Inc.

ACT Inc, the organisation that designs and administers the most widely used high school standardised tests in the USA, has just published a short but interesting document. In it, they state:

In the report Broadening the Definition of College and Career Readiness: A Holistic Approach (Mattern et al. 2014), ACT has begun to describe the skills needed for postsecondary success through a new model of learning readiness that encompasses at least four overlapping but distinct domains:

  • Core Academic Skills in English language arts, mathematics, and science
  • Cross-Cutting Capabilities such as critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving, and information and technology skills
  • Behavioral Skills related to success in education and the workforce, such as being dependable, working effectively with others, adapting, and managing stress
  • Navigation Skills, or skills needed to successfully negotiate educational and career pathways, such as self-knowledge of abilities, likes and dislikes, and values; knowledge about majors, occupations, and future career opportunities; and the variety of skills related to educational and career exploration, planning, and decision making needed for long-term success in the workplace

The documents also states:

Readiness assessments that focus solely on academic proficiency risk ignoring what education, business, and industry leaders have long recognized: behavioral and career skills and crosscutting capabilities are no less essential to success in the 21st-century college classroom and the workplace. The “life skills” framework suggested by this new model supports this holistic picture of readiness.

Comment

It is good that ACT is raising the issue of the skills needed by learners and graduates in today’s society. Identifying the most important skills is an essential first step to ensuring that they get taught.

However, the paper raises more questions than it answers, such as:

  • is this the ‘right’ list of skills? For instance, shouldn’t knowledge management and digital literacy (which is not the same as IT skills) be in there somewhere? And who should decide what skills are important?
  • is it the job of colleges and universities to teach these broader skills? I believe it is, but that raises further questions, such as:
    • do instructors currently have the knowledge, time and inclination to develop these new skills?
    • do these new skills replace or are they an addition to what schools and colleges are already teaching? What are the trade-offs that will be necessary if more focus is given to these skills?
  • what teaching methods are most likely to enable students to develop these skills?
  • what is the best way to measure or assess such skills?

The last question is particularly important to ask, because I suspect ACT is looking to build standardised, computer assessments for such skills, but this may not be the most appropriate form of assessment.

My online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, attempts to address at least some of these issues, but I don’t pretend that I have all the answers. It is good though that ACT is raising the issue of identifying and assessing these ‘soft’ skills, even if there may be a commercial motive behind their research.

Reference

Mattern, Krista, et al. (2014) Broadening the Definition of College and Career Readiness: A Holistic Approach. Iowa City, IA: ACT Research Report Series 2014-5

Book ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ now ready and available

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IT’S OPEN! IT’S FREE! IT’S ONLINE! IT’S READY!

For the last two weeks I have been frantically re-editing my online open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I am relieved and pleased to announce that the book is now finished – or at least as finished as an open online textbook will be, as it’s possible, indeed essential, to continue to add or remove materials to keep it up to date.

So if you get the chance, log in to the book, have a look at it, and, if you can find the time, send me your comments.

The target group

The audience I am reaching out for are primarily:

  • college and university instructors anxious to improve their teaching or facing major challenges in the classroom,
  • school teachers, particularly in secondary or high schools anxious to ensure their students are ready for either post-secondary education or a rapidly changing and highly uncertain job market.

Different ways to use the book

The book will download in epub, pdf, and mobi versions, so it can be printed out or the whole book can be downloaded, for straightforward reading.

It can also be downloaded in xHTML, Pressbooks XML, or WordPress XML from the home page, so it can be edited or adapted for secondary use.

The book is written on the assumption that most reading will be done in chunks of one hour or less, so each section of a chapter can be completed in one hour at the maximum (some sections will be much shorter).

There are many different ways this book could be used. Here are some suggestions:

  • straight read through (over several days) for personal use by individual teachers and instructors: this is probably the least likely use, but there is a logical sequence and a continuous, coherent argument that builds up through the book;
  • specific chapters or sections that are useful or timely can be read by individual faculty or teachers, more as a reference or for a specific purpose, and other sections or chapters can then be read as needed;
  • teachers or instructors can do the activities that follow most sections, mainly for personal reflection, but also to compare their responses to either mine or other readers;
  • the book can be used, whole or in parts, as the core reading for an online course (or part of a course) on how to teach in a digital age. The activities I have suggested can be included, or, if you use one of the editing formats (XHTML, Pressbooks XML or WordPress XML), you can replace the activities with your own;
  • use the book, in parts or as a whole, as preparation for faculty development or pro-d workshops
  • take sections or parts of the book, and combine them with your own materials, for either an online course or for faculty development/pro-d.

See About the book – and how to use it, for more details

Content

I will be doing 13 separate posts summarising each chapter, but in the meantime:

Chapter 1 Fundamental change in Education

This sets the stage for the rest of the book. Chapter 1 looks at the key changes that are forcing teachers and instructors to reconsider their goals and methods of teaching, In particular it identifies the key knowledge and skills that students need in a digital age, and how technology is changing everything, including the context in which we teach.

Chapters 2-5: Epistemology and teaching methods

These chapters address the more theoretical and methodological aspects of teaching and learning in a digital age. Chapter 2 covers different views on the nature of knowledge and how these understandings of knowledge influence theories of learning and methods of teaching. Chapters 3 and 4 analyse the strengths and weaknesses of different methods of teaching ranging from solely campus-based through blended to fully online. Chapter 5 looks at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. These chapters form a theoretical foundation for what follows.

Chapters 6-8: Media and technology

The focus in these three chapters is on how to choose and use different media and technologies in teaching, with a particular focus on the unique pedagogical characteristics of different media. Chapter 8 ends with a set of criteria and a model for making decisions about different media and technologies for teaching.

Chapters 9-10: Modes of delivery and open education

Chapter 9 addresses the question of how to determine what mode of delivery should be used: campus-based; blended or fully online. Chapter 10 examines the potentially disruptive implications of recent developments in open content, open publishing, open data and open research. This chapter above all is a messenger of the radical changes to come to education.

Chapter 11 and Appendix 1: Ensuring quality in teaching in a digital age

These take two different but complementary approaches to the issue of ensuring high quality teaching in a digital age. Chapter 11 suggests nine pragmatic steps for designing and delivering quality teaching in a highly digital teaching context. Appendix 1 looks at all the necessary components of a high quality learning environment.

Chapter 12: Institutional support

This chapter very briefly examines the policy and operational support needed from schools, colleges and universities to ensure relevant and high quality teaching in a digital age.

Scenarios

There are ten ‘what if’ scenarios scattered throughout the book. These are semi-fictional, semi-, because in almost every case, the scenario is based on an actual example. However, I have sometimes combined one or more cases, or extended or broadened the original case. The purpose of the scenarios is to stimulate imagination and thinking about both our current ‘blocks’ or barriers to change, and the real and exciting possibilities of teaching in the future.

Other features

Each chapter ends with a set of key ‘takeaways’ from the chapter, and a complete set of references. There is also a comprehensive bibliography that collects together all the references from the chapters. Most chapter sections end with an activity.

There are also several appendices providing more detailed information to support each chapter, and some sample answers to the questions posed in the activities.

 

Over to you

As I said, an online, open textbook is dynamic, not static. Changes are possible at any time. Your feedback then will be of immense value, not just to me, but also to future readers.

What have I missed? Is the structure clear? Is it appropriate for the target audience? Is it useful to you, and if so, in what ways?

Above all, can you help me to reach beyond instructional designers, and enthusiasts for online learning, into the main body of instructors and teachers? Can you pass the word on? What would you recommend I do to get to the target audience?

As always, your help will be so much appreciated. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading the book.