25 Years of EdTech: 2014 – Learning analytics

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Data, data, data. It’s the new oil and the new driver of capitalism, war, politics. So inevitably its role in education would come to the fore. Interest in analytics is driven by the increased amount of time that students spend in online learning environments, particularly LMSs and MOOCs. Although not a direct consequence, there is a definite synergy and similarity between MOOCs and analytics. Both brought new people into education technology, particularly from the computer science field. I think we can be a bit snooty about this, what are all these hard core empiricists suddenly doing in our touchy-feely domain? But if the knowledge exchange is reciprocal, then this evolving nature of ed tech can be one of its strengths. The reservations arise when it is less of a mutual knowledge sharing and more an aggressive take-over.

The positive side of learning analytics is that for distance education in particular, it provides the equivalent of responding to discreet signals in the face-to-face environment: the puzzled expression, the yawn, or the whispering between students looking for clarity. Every good face-to-face educator will respond to these signals and adjust their behaviour. In an online environment, these cues are absent, and analytics provides some proxy for these. If an educator sees that students are repeatedly going back to a resource, that might indicate a similar need to adapt that resource, offer further advice, etc.

The downsides are that learning analytics can reduce students to data and that ownership over the data becomes a commodity in itself. Let’s face it, the use of analytics has only just begun, and the danger is that instead of analytics supporting education, analytics becomes education. The edtech field needs to avoid the mistakes of data capitalism; it should embed learner agency and ethics in the use of data, and it should deploy that data sparingly.

One of the benefits of thinking about analytics might be simply better communication to students. Navigating the peculiar, often idiosyncratic world of higher education with its rules and regulations can be daunting and confusing. By considering useful dashboards for instance, the complexity of this is surfaced. In this study, simply telling students what degree they were on course for was deemed remarkably useful. It transpires that calculating this for yourself is remarkably difficult, which highlights itself how HEIs can do a lot to simplify and expose their workings for students.

25 years of EdTech: 2013 – Open Textbooks

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

If MOOCs were the glamorous side of open education, all breathless headlines and predictions, open textbooks were the practical, even dowdy, application. An extension of the OER movement, and particularly pertinent in the United States and Canada, open textbooks provided openly licensed versions of bespoke written textbooks, free for the digital version. The cost of textbooks provided an initial motivation for adoption, but it is the potential of adaption that makes them interesting. Open textbooks are sometimes criticised for being an unimaginative application of the possibilities of open. But they also offer a clear example of several aspects which need to align for ed tech adoption in higher ed.

Firstly, they set out to establish a solid evidence base. They did not just rely on altruism, and statements of belief. The Open Ed group in particular demonstrated that open textbooks were of high quality, and had a positive impact on students. This evidence base makes it difficult for them to be dismissed by commercial interests.

Secondly, through funding from the likes of Hewlett, some professional, long term providers were established who could produce reliable quality. These books looked as good as anything that you bought, they weren’t some quirky DIY effort.

Thirdly, the switching of costs from purchase to production established a viable economic model that is applicable for other open approaches. They could not be dismissed as unsustainable.

These three elements lay the foundation for their adoption and overcome many of the reservations or objections raised. Now the challenge is from this base to start doing the really interesting stuff. As with LMSs, open textbooks offer an easy route to adoption. Exploration around open pedagogy, co-creation with students, and diversification of the curriculum all point to a potentially rich, open, edtech ecosystem—with open textbooks at the centre. However, the possible drawback is that like LMSs, open textbooks may not become a stepping-stone on the way to a more innovative, varied teaching approach but, rather, may become an end point in themselves.

What I like about open textbooks is they don’t seek to remove the human element from education. Make education more affordable, flexible, accessible but still essentially human. Maybe that’s why they don’t attract the attention of venture capitalists.

Recognising our own expertise

During the recent OU Crisis, one of the things I moaned about was the lack of faith senior management seemed to have in the expertise of their own staff. We brought in consultants, and hired people outside of higher ed, to tell us how to be a better open university. I know my institution is not alone in this, and it portrays perhaps an insecurity about our own knowledge.

So, having moaned about it, my bluff has been called. I’ve been asked to lead a set of internal OU seminars, highlighting expertise we have and focussing on how it can be applied practically. I have a vagueish set of principles for the series:

  • Based on combination of external research and work at the OU
  • Discussion based, no predetermined solutions
  • Not linked to any specific workstream, strategic priority, etc.
  • Input from all OU staff welcome
  • Focus on practical application within the OU, which could be realised within a reasonable time frame.
  • Interactive (maybe fun even?)

I feel it’s rooted in the practical approach to ed tech. I’m starting the series off with a seminar based on the OOFAT work as a way of thinking about our own strategy, on Tuesday 17 July at 11am-12pm in Hub Theatre. If you’re OU staff, please come along. We plan to either record or stream it, so hopefully available to all.

I would also like to hear if others have run similar type of sessions or programmes at their institutions, if there were particular approaches they would recommend (or recommend to avoid)?

25 Years of EdTech – 2012: MOOCs


(we used David Kernohan’s image a lot back in the day and this is Michael Branson Smith’s animated version)

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Inevitably, in this series 2012 had to be allocated to MOOCs, when it was so breathlessly anointed “The Year of the MOOC“. In many ways the MOOC phenomenon can be viewed as the combination of several preceding technologies: some of the open approach of OER, the application of video, the experimentation of connectivism, and the revolutionary hype of web 2.0. Clay Shirky mistakenly proclaimed that MOOCs were the internet happening to education. If he’d been paying attention, he would have seen that this had been happening for some time. Rather, MOOCs were Silicon Valley happening to education. Once Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun’s course had attracted over 100,000 learners and almost as many headlines, the venture capitalist investment flooded in.

Much has been written about MOOCs, more than I can do justice to here. They are a case study still in the making. The raised profile of open education and online learning caused by MOOCs may be beneficial in the long run, but the MOOC hype (only ten global providers of higher education by 2022?) may be equally detrimental. The edtech field needs to learn how to balance these developments. Millions of learners accessing high-quality material online is a positive, but the rush by colleges and universities to enter into prohibitive contracts, outsource expertise, and undermine their own staff has long-term consequences as well.

With MOOC companies still trying to find business models, the hype of revolutionising higher ed has often become something more muted such as “we do nice corporate training“. And it is still an industry that relies on higher education, so the alliance between the two needs to be mutually beneficial, less it go down the antagonistic model of academic publishing. Grizzled old educational technologists such as myself who hold memories of their hand coded HTML websites dear might bemoan the Year Zero mentality of MOOC entrants (“we’ve invented online learning, say thank you!”), it is also the case that when it works well, universities have gained a lot of experience in developing online courses and dealing with the needs of online learners, which had stalled in many places.

And I’ll forever be grateful to MOOCs for the sheer number of blog posts they generated.

PS – if you want a SPOILER for the remaining years, I was asked to turn this series into a 20 Years of Ed Tech article for Educause Review (who are celebrating their 20th anniversary).

25 Years of EdTech: 2011 – PLE

Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) were an outcome of the proliferation of services that suddenly became available following the web 2.0 boom. Learners and educators began to gather a set of tools to realize a number of functions. In edtech, the conversation turned to whether these tools could be somehow “glued” together in terms of data. We got quite excited about the idea of eduglu, which might be a bit embarrassing now. Instead of talking about one LMS provided to all students, we were discussing how each learner had their own particular blend of tools. Yet beyond a plethora of spoke diagrams, with each showing a different collection of icons, the PLE concept didn’t really develop after its peak in 2011. In 2014 I asked why we didn’t talk about PLEs anymore, and offered the following reasons:

  • It’s become commonplace, so drawing the distinction between your set of tools and an institutional learning environment isn’t necessary. It’s a bit like saying “my phone is mobile!”
  • It’s become absorbed, so it is seen as an extension of the LMS, or rather the LMS is just one other part of it. We don’t differentiate between tools for different settings because the boundaries between personal and professional have been blurred.
  • There has been a shakedown in the market, so actually we’ve all settled on the same few tools: Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, Slideshare, plus some other specific ones. My PLE looks pretty much like your PLE, so it’s not really a Personal one anymore. Just like with the early days of search engines, we don’t talk about whether you prefer Lycos or Webcrawler now, we just Google it.
  • It wasn’t a useful term or approach. There were projects that attempted to get data passed between LMSs and PLE tools, or to set these up for people, and in the end people just opted for some tools they found useful, and didn’t feel the need to go further.

These still seem reasonable, particularly the reduction in variety of tools. The problem was that passing along data was not a trivial task, and we soon became wary about applications that shared data (although perhaps not wary enough, given recent news regarding Cambridge Analytica). Also, providing a uniform offering and support for learners was difficult when they were all using different tools. The focus shifted from a personalized set of tools to a personalized set of resources, and in recent years this has become the goal of personalization. But that is a whole different story. I miss the excitement of having a favourite url shortener though.

25 Years of EdTech: 2010 – Connectivism

Untitled

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

The early enthusiasm for e-learning saw a number of pedagogies resurrected or adopted to meet the new potential of the digital, networked context. Constructivism, problem-based learning, and resource-based learning all saw renewed interest as educators sought to harness the possibility of abundant content and networked learners.

Yet connectivism, as proposed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2004–2005, could lay claim to being the first internet-native learning theory. Siemens defined connectivism as “the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements—not entirely under the control of the individual.”

Further investigating the possibility of networked learning led to the creation of the early MOOCs, including influential open courses by Downes and Siemens in 2008 and 2009. Pinning down exactly what connectivism was could be difficult, George stressed it was not a pedagogy, but rather it could be viewed as a set of principles:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

What was significant about connectivism was that it represented an attempt to rethink how learning is best realized given the new realities of a digital, networked, open environment, as opposed to forcing technology into the service of existing practices. This has been surprisingly rare since – Dave Cormier and others have ventured rhizomatic learning, I don’t think I ever explored the concept of a pedagogy of abundance fully, and there is now some development around the idea of open pedagogy, but in general it feels that we have stopped noticing the possibilities of networked technology. For example, while connectivism provided the basis for MOOCs, the approach they eventually adopted was far removed from this and fairly conservative. Perhaps when the internet was new, we noticed these differences more starkly, but now it is the norm, the contrast doesn’t raise as many questions. Even if it’s not connectivism per se, we should continually revisit the impetus to examine the learning possibilities that led to its formulation.

25 Years of EdTech: 2009 – Twitter

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

If the VLE was the big cheese of ed tech, then Twitter is the behemoth of third party tech that has been adopted in education. There’s probably too much that can be said about Twitter to do the subject justice, but it would be remiss to leave it out of my 25 years account. Founded in 2006, Twitter had moved well beyond the tech-enthusiast bubble by 2009 but had yet to become what we know it as today: a tool for wreaking political mayhem. With the trolls, bots, nazis, daily outrages, and generally toxic behaviour not only on Twitter but also on Facebook and other social media, it’s difficult to recall the optimism that we once held for these technologies. In 2009, though, the ability to make global connections, to easily cross disciplines, and to engage in meaningful discussion all before breakfast was revolutionary.

There was also a democratizing effect: formal academic status was not significant, since users were judged on the value of their contributions to the network. In educational terms, social media has done much to change the nature of the relationship between academics, students, and the institution. Even though the negative aspects are now undeniable, some of that early promise remains. What we are now wrestling with is the paradox of social media: the fact that its negatives and its positives exist simultaneously.

In education, much of the attention has focused on its use by educators to develop online identities. Step forward George Veletsianos, Bonnie Stewart, Katy Jordan, Catherine Cronin and Cristina Costa amongst many others who have made this a really rich area of research. The paradoxes are evident in much of this work also: educators use it to enhance their work, share resources, gain information, develop networks, but also feel stress, uncertainty and pressure relating to its use.

The use of Twitter to teach is perhaps less well documented. At the OU my colleague Andrew Smith does some interesting work in using it to create a community for distance ed students, and the very successful #PhDchat hashtag has been used to create a global, informal community. It is now part of the mainstream of university communication channels, and often integrated into support functions also. But it’s effective use in education is still often an isolated practice – and given its issues maybe that’s a good thing, as mandating or privileging any use comes with myriad issues.

As with Facebook, one of the issues students found in using a social media platform where they combine their personal and academic identity, they suffer from ‘context collapse‘. One minute you’re discussing the best place to get cheap lager, and the next your professor has popped up saying ‘here’s an interesting article on Derrida’. It’s disconcerting. But this is a reflection of what Twitter does for education as a whole – the context between the university and the rest of society is collapsed. That may be no bad thing generally, but when it means flat earthers arrive in your geology discussion to insist the world is not, you know, round, it raises problems which we are still incapable of solving. Twitter context collapse is like one of those black hole visualisations – cat pictures, sports discussion, funny memes, feminist movements, supportive communities, nazi trolls, conspiracy theorists – they’re all collapsing in and in this academia is one small part. Regaining and retaining its own sense of identity and values while deriving some of the benefits of context collapse – that’s the challenge.

Models of online & flexible learning

I mentioned in a previous post that I have been doing some work with Dominic Orr and Rob Farrow in behalf of the ICDE, looking at various models of open, online and flexible technology enhanced learning (what we labelled OOFAT). The full report is out now, and I humbly suggest it is the best (OOFAT) report you will ever read.

When ICDE set out this work they were very clear about two principles: it should address the range of how open, online and flexible models are being used, and every institution should be able to recognise themselves in the model. So, in contrast to many types of ed tech analysis it is not proposing one perfect solution which all should aspire, nor is it based on some uber high tech start-up in California. The intention was to be disgustingly practical.

With this in mind we developed a conceptual model, and an in depth survey. From this, we devised six OOFAT models, which represented how institutions globally were adopting aspects of OOFAT:

  • OOFAT at the centre, where OOFAT is not implemented for one specific purpose, or market, but as an integral part of the institution’s overall mission
  • OOFAT for organisational flexibility, where OOFAT supports flexibility of higher education provision across all aspects of the conceptual model
  • content-focused OOFAT model, where providers concentrate on the element of content development and delivery specifically
  • access-focused OOFAT model, where access to content and support is set as the focus of OOFAT implementation
  • OOFAT for a specific purpose, where OOFAT implementation is developed for one very specific function or market and not right across the institution
  • OOFAT for multiple-projects, where very different initiatives are undertaken by the provider experimenting with different aspects of the OOFAT model and not as part of a unified strategy

Allied with what providers were doing was their business model underlying it. We identified five of these:

  • Fixed core model, where providers maintain a legacy approach to their products and services and to their target market, although they may be innovating in other areas
  • Outreach model, where providers maintain the same products and services, but are innovating in the dimensions of target group recruitment and utilising new communication channels
  • Service-provider model, where providers maintain a focus on their target group whilst particularly innovating in the areas of product and service and communication channels
  • Entrepreneurial model, where providers adopt innovative strategies for the areas product and service, target group and communication channel, i.e. they aim to be transformative in their services and provision
  • Entrepreneurial model with fixed core, where providers maintain a legacy focus to their core services (teaching and learning), but focus on being innovative in all other areas

For me the key to the report is section 9, which combines the theoretical model and findings to offer a step by step guide for any institution to review their own strategy. This starts by reviewing their current approach (ie which of the 6 OOFAT models is the best fit), then asks them to consider which model they would like to move to (using a database of the case studies to help). Finally the appropriate business model is selected to realise this. I think the most important aspect in this is not that our models are exhaustive (they’re not) or the only representation, but rather that the model itself and this way step by step guide surfaces conversations about the practical adoption of technology and open models which are not value laden. It is not that one model is ‘better’ but rather in order to best meet the needs of any institution and its learners there are different approaches. Having a framework within which you can have these conversations which is devoid of silicon valley economics and digital buzzwords is the real takeaway from the report.

Emotions, artefacts and education

Books galore

I’ve been having bits of this conversation with various people, so I’m going to try blogging it as a way of clarifying the mess in my head (a little).

During the recent OU Crisis™ one of the elements that kept arising on twitter discussions was students and staff saying the shift to online was flawed, and there was a strong preference for books. Similarly, in nearly all of our student surveys the components of a course that score the highest satisfaction are printed units. As one of the early proponents of online education at the OU, I used to resist this narrative, dismissing it as people sticking with what they know. But I have come to rethink that over the years.

The argument is often couched in terms of pedagogy, and the big benefit touted for print was being able to study on the move (the “OU student studying on the bus” became something of an overworked cliche). But with fairly pervasive mobile devices and access, that argument doesn’t carry as much weight now (there are some groups, eg learners in prisons for whom print is often beneficial). And yes, many students find reading off screen difficult. But that is partly habit and partly poor design if we are creating courses that are the equivalent of printed units online. Generally, the pedagogic benefits of online and digital for distance ed students are superior. I’m not making a claim about face to face campus education here, but a similar fondness for face to face tutorials over online ones can also be found as for print over online. The problem is attendance at online is far higher than face to face – so what people say they like and their behaviour are not necessarily the same thing. It’s a bit like opera – I like the fact that it exists, but I’m going to be found watching Netflix.

But I think these sorts of arguments, while valid, dismiss a very significant factor of being a (distance ed) student – namely the emotive element. As I’ve mentioned before, I started re-collecting vinyl recently. I could make an argument that it is about audio quality, which would be analogous to the pedagogy argument for print, but let’s be honest, it is an entirely emotional attachment to an artefact. I like having the physical object, just as some people need to have a physical book in order to feel they have read it. We should not dismiss or underplay the importance of this in education.

To consider the role of this emotional aspect, let’s look at just one issue, namely student retention, although we might think of performance, satisfaction or skills also. We know for instance, that students who form social bonds with others are more likely to complete their studies. We also know that student retention is lower for online courses as compared to courses utilising traditional methods of delivery. Chyung, Winiecki & Fenner found that the main factor which contributed to the decision on whether to continue or withdraw was the student’s level of satisfaction with the first or second course in the programme. Specific reasons for withdrawal included:

  1. dissatisfaction with the learning environment
  2. divergence between professional and personal interest and the structure of the course
  3. low confidence in distance learning
  4. hesitations about successfully communicating online
  5. lack of competence in utilising distance education software
  6. feeling overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge and information

Now a text book or printed unit that a student feels a connection to could help address 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 in that list. A text is something students feel familiar with already, and by establishing an emotional connection with the content of the course, they might overcome any subsequent issues.

It’s not the case that we should shift to print, and for instance, it might be different at Masters level than at level 1. Online probably _is_ better to realise many of the pedagogic benefits of distance learning, but the emotional attachment, comfort, security and manifestness of a physical object can usefully help support the online aspect. This might be the most important benefit that open textbooks could offer – making high quality, adapted textbooks economically viable to provide the benefits of the physical artefact, even if most of the actual teaching and learning then takes place online.

25 Years of EdTech: 2008 – eportfolios

B is for Buzzcocks

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Like learning objects, e-portfolios were backed by a sound idea. The e-portfolio was a place to store all the evidence a learner gathered to exhibit learning, both formal and informal, in order to support lifelong learning and career development. It is an idea that has significant impact for education – instead of recognising education at the level of qualification, ie that it is a degree in Chemistry, say, it allows a more granular recognition of specific skills, linked to evidence.

But like learning objects — and despite academic interest and a lot of investment in technology and standards — e-portfolios did not become the standard form of assessment as proposed, although in some areas their uptake has gained significance. Many of their problems were similar to those that beleaguered learning objects, including overcomplicated software, an institutional rather than a user focus, and a lack of accompanying pedagogical change. I went on a rant about them in 2011, and I think these issues still remain:

Over-complication – because we are developing software to suit a range of stakeholders, feature creep becomes inevitable. The question of ‘how simple can we make it’ is not one that is usually asked. So for eportfolios we find we need new standards to export and move between institutions, ways of locking down items so they can be verified, means of providing different views for different audiences, etc. In a blog the answers to these problems are already in place.

Institutional, not user focus – a related point is that we end up developing solutions that are sold or selected by institutions (see also VLEs). An institution has a very different set of requirements to an individual. However, if you want eportfolios to work, then it’s individuals that need to like them and be motivated to use them. This emanates from an institutional tic, which is the need to own and control systems and data.

Focus on the tool, not the skills – having developed our overly complex, institutionally focused tool, it now requires a good deal of training for students to use it, since it isn’t very intuitive, and they didn’t know they wanted it anyway. So it becomes a tool that is focused around a particular course, often with credit attached to it. In short it becomes a tool used inside education only. There is little focus on the more general skills which are actually the main benefits: sharing content, gathering and annotating resources as you go, becoming part of a network, reflecting on work, commenting on others, etc. In short, the sort of skills that make for a good blogger.

Lack of social element – the eportfolio often becomes institutionally branded and focused, and because it is has been designed by educational technologists who are probably a bit sniffy about all this social software business, doesn’t allow for much of the easy social elements found elsewhere. This can be functional (eg is embedding easy), but more often it is cultural – the culture of blogging is one of openness and reciprocity, whereas eportfolios are tied into a more academic culture of individualism, plagiarism and copyright. In this environment the social element does not flourish.

Educational arrogance – maybe arrogance is too strong a term, but eportfolios demonstrate a common mistake (in my view) in educational technology, which goes something like “Here’s some interesting software/tool/service which does most of what we want. But it’s not quite good enough for higher education, let’s develop our own version with features X and Y”. In adding features X and Y though they lose what was good about the initial tool, and take a long time. Blogs are good enough for eportfolios, if what you want from an eportfolio is for people to actually, you know, use them.

Although e-portfolio tools remain pertinent for many subjects, particularly vocational ones, for many students owning their own domain and blog remains a better route to establishing a lifelong digital identity. It is perhaps telling that although many practitioners in higher education maintain blogs, asking to see a colleague’s e-portfolio is likely to be met with a blank response, whereas we can all find colleagues with active blogs. But if we consider eportfolios as an instantiation of a more general approach of rethinking assessment and recognition, and then reimagining courses and pedagogy to take utilise this, then they are more interesting.

[If you want a different 2008 take, Jim Groom offers up edupunk for that year].

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