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25 Years of Ed Tech: Themes & Conclusions

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 05/09/2018 - 10:43

Now that I have completed the 25 Years of Ed Tech series (which was actually 26 years, because maths), I thought I’d have an attempt at some synthesis of it and try to extract some themes. In truth, each of these probably merits a post of its own, but I wanted to wrap this series up before the 25 Year anniversary of ALT-C next week. Plus, tired.

No country for rapidity – one of the complaints, particularly from outsiders is that higher ed is resistant, and slow, to change. This is true, but we should also frame it as a strength. Universities have been around longer than Google after all, and part of their appeal is their immutability. This means they don’t abandon everything for the latest technology (see later for what tech tends to get adopted). If you’re planning on being around for another 1000 years then you need to be cautious. We didn’t close all our libraries and replace with them LaserDiscs in the 90s. As the conclusion of the Educause piece I wrote stated “it’s no game for the impatient”.

Historical amnesia – I’ve covered this before, but one of the characteristics of ed tech is that people wander into it from other disciplines. Often they wouldn’t even know they’re now in ed tech, they’re doing MOOCs, or messing about with assessment on their psychology course, and they may spend a bit of time doing it and return to their main focus. Ed Tech can be like a holiday resort, people passing through from many destinations, with only a few regulars remaining. What this means is there is a tendency we see repeatedly over the 25 years for ideas to be rediscovered. A consequence of this is that it sees every development as operating in isolation instead of building on the theoretical, financial, administrative and research of previous work. For example, you probably don’t get OER without open source, and you don’t get MOOCs without OER, and so on.

Cycles of interest – there are some ideas that keep recurring in ed tech: the intelligent tutor, personalised learning, the end of universities. Audrey Watters refers to zombie ideas, which just won’t die. Partly this is a result of the aforementioned historical amnesia, and partly it is a result of techno-optimism (“This time it really will work”). It is also a consequence of over enthusiastic initial claims, which the technology takes 10 years or so to catch up with. So while, intelligent tutoring systems were woefully inadequate for the claims in the 90s, some of that is justifiable in 2018. Also, just conceptually you sometimes need a few cycles at an idea to get it accepted.

Disruption isn’t for education – given it’s dominance in much of ed tech discourse, what the previous trends highlight is that disruption is simply not a very good theory to apply to the education sector. One of the main attractions of higher ed is its longevity, and disruption theory seeks to destroy a sector. Given that it has failed to do this to higher ed, despite numerous claims that this is the death of universities, would suggest that it won’t happen soon. Disruption also plays strongly to the benefits of historical amnesia, which is a weakness here, and the cycles of interest argue that what you want to do is build iteratively, rather than sweep away and start anew. There are lots of other reasons to distrust the idea of disruption, but in higher ed at least, it’s just not a very productive way to innovate.

The role of humans – ed tech seems to come in two guises: helping the educator or replacing them. If we look at developments such as wikis, OER, CMC, blogs, even SecondLife, then their primary aim is to find tech that can help enhance education, either for a new set of learners, to realise new approaches, or sometimes, just try some stuff out. Other approaches are framed in terms of removing human educators: AI, learning analytics, MOOCs. Not necessarily – for example, learning analytics can be used to help human educators better support learners. But often the hype (and financial interest) is around the large scale implementation of automatic learning. As I mentioned in a previous post education is fundamentally a human enterprise, and my sense is we (at least those of us in ed tech in higher ed) should prioritise the former types of ed tech.

Innovation happens – for all the above: change happens slowly, people forget the past, disruption is a bust, focus on people – the survey of the last 25 years in ed tech also reveals a rich history of innovation. Web 2.0, bulletin board systems, PLEs, connectivism – these all saw exciting innovation and also questioning what education is for and how best to realise it.

Distance from the core – the technologies that get adopted and embedded into higher ed tend to correlate closely with core university functions, which we categorised as content, delivery and recognition in our recent OOFAT report. So, VLEs, eportfolios, elearning – these kinds of technology relate very closely to these core functions. The further you get from these then the more difficult it becomes to make the technology relevant, and embedded in everyday practice.

So, that’s really the end of the series.

25 Years of EdTech: 2018 – Critical Ed Tech

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 16/08/2018 - 10:18

[The last in the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

I’ll do a conclusion and themes post (if I can be arsed) of the 25 Years series, but now we reach the end. For this year, I’ve chosen not a technology, but rather a trend. I see in much of ed tech a divide, particularly at conferences. There is the gung ho, Silicon Valley, technology utopian evangelists. This is a critical reflection free zone, because the whole basis of this industry is on selling perfect solutions (to problems they have concocted). This is where the money is.

In contrast to this is a developing strand of criticality around the role of technology in society and in education in particular. With the impact of social media on politics, Russian bots, (actual) fake news, Cambridge Analytica, and numerous privacy scares, the need for a critical approach is apparent. Being sceptical about tech is no longer a specialist interest. Chris Gilliard has an excellent thread on all the invasive uses of tech, not all educational, but there are educational implementations for most of them.

One prominent strand of such criticality is suspicion about the claims of educational technology in general, and the role of software companies in particular. One of the consequences of ed tech entering the mainstream of education is that it becomes increasingly attractive to companies who wish to enter the education market. Much of the narrative around ed tech is associated with change, which quickly becomes co-opted into broader agendas around commercialisation, commodification and massification of education.

For instance, the Avalanche report argued that systemic change is inevitable because “elements of the traditional university are threatened by the coming avalanche. In Clayton Christensen’s terms, universities are ripe for disruption”. In this view, education, perceived as slow, resistant to change and old-fashioned is seen as ripe for disruption. Increasingly then academic ed tech is reacting against these claims about the role of technology and is questioning the impact on learners, scholarly practice, and its implications. For example, while learning analytics have gained a good deal of positive coverage regarding their ability to aid learners and educators, others have questioned their role in learner agency and monitoring and their ethics.

One of the key voices in ed tech criticality is Neil Selwyn, who argues that engaging with digital impact on education in a critical manner is a key role of educators, stating “the notion of a contemporary educational landscape infused with digital data raises the need for detailed inquiry and critique”. This includes being self-critical, and analysing the assumptions and progress in movements within ed tech. It’s important to distinguish critique as Selwyn sees it, and just being anti-technology. These are not pro and anti technology camps – you can still be enthusiastic about the application of technology in particular contexts. What it does mean is being aware of the broader implications, questioning claims, and advocating (or conducting) research about real impacts.

Ed tech research then has begun to witness a shift from advocacy, which tended to promote the use of new technologies, to a more critical perspective. This is not to say that there is enough critical thought around, and the drive for venture capital still seeks to eradicate it, but this series is about when moments in ed tech became significant. 2018 marks that for a more receptive approach to critical perspectives. If the evangelist and critical approaches represent two distinct groups, then sitting inbetween these two is the group we should all be focused on in ed tech – the practitioners in universities, schools and colleges who want to do the best for their learners. And that seems a fitting place to end the series.

25 Years of Ed Tech: 2017 – blockchain

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 09/08/2018 - 11:28


All clear now? (image from https://www.intheblack.com/articles/2018/03/22/blockchain-future-record-keeping)

Of all the technologies listed in this series, blockchain is perhaps the most perplexing, both in how it works and in why it is even in this list. In 2016 several people independently approached me about blockchain — the distributed, secure ledger for keeping the records that underpin Bitcoin. The question was always the same: “Could we apply this in education somehow?” The imperative seemed to be that blockchain was a cool technology, and therefore there must be an educational application. It could provide a means of recording achievements and bringing together large and small, formal and informal, outputs and recognition.

Viewed in this way, blockchain is attempting to bring together several issues and technologies: e-portfolios, with the aim to provide an individual, portable record of educational achievement; digital badges, with the intention to recognize informal learning; MOOCs and OER, with the desire to offer varied informal learning opportunities; PLEs and personalized learning, with the idea to focus more on the individual than on an institution. A personal, secure, permanent, and portable ledger may well be the ring to bind all these together. However, the history of these technologies should also be a warning for blockchain enthusiasts. With e-portfolios, for instance, even when there is a clear connection to educational practice, adoption can be slow, requiring many other components to fall into place. In 2018 even the relatively conservative and familiar edtech of open textbooks is far from being broadly accepted. Attempting to convince educators that a complex technology might solve a problem they don’t think they have is therefore unlikely to meet with widespread support.

If blockchain is to realize any success, it will need to work almost unnoticed; it will succeed only if people don’t know they’re using blockchain. Nevertheless, many who propose blockchain display a definite evangelist’s zeal. It is perhaps the nirvana of technological solutionism – a technology that no-one really understands, doing something they can’t quite unpack for reasons they don’t fathom. They desire its adoption as an end goal in itself, rather than as an appropriate solution to a specific problem. If I had the time I’d keep a blockchain tumblr for ridiculous proposals for blockchain solutions. I think the most important aspect of blockchain might be to keep an eye on how it gets used without our knowledge, and what the implications for that are. If anyone tries to sell your VC/Principal a blockchain solution make sure someone tech-smart is in that room.

In the meantime, if you need to blag blockchain knowledge in a meeting, just take a leaf out of this advert’s book and end every sentence with “thanks to the blockchain solution.”

25 Years of Ed Tech: 2016 – The return of AI

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 06/08/2018 - 20:05

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

I covered this in 1993’s entry, that Artificial intelligence was the focus of attention in education in the 1980s and 1990s with the possible development of intelligent tutoring systems. The initial enthusiasm for these systems waned somewhat, when they failed to deliver on their promise. For example, in their influential 1985 paper, Anderson, Boyle and Reiser detailed intelligent tutoring systems for geometry and the programming language LISP. They confidently predicted that “Cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, and computer technology have advanced to the point where it is feasible to build computer systems that are as effective as intelligent human tutors”. Yet, by 1997 Anderson was amongst authors lamenting that “intelligent tutoring has had relatively little impact on education and training in the world.” In their analysis they hit upon something which seems obvious, and yet continues to echo through educational technology, namely that the ed tech (in this case intelligent tutoring systems but it might equally apply to MOOCs, say) are not developed according to educational perspectives. They stated that “the creative vision of intelligent computer tutors has largely arisen among artificial intelligence researchers rather than education specialists. Researchers recognized that intelligent tutoring systems are a rich and important natural environment in which to deploy and improve Al algorithms… the bottom line is that intelligent tutoring systems are generally evaluated according to artificial intelligence criteria …rather than with respect to a cost/benefit analysis educational effectiveness.” In short, they are developed and evaluated by people who like the technology, but don’t really know or appreciate the educational context. In this snapshot we have much of the history of ed tech.

Interest in AI faded as interest in the web and related technologies increased, but it has resurfaced in the past five years or so. What has changed over this intervening period is the power of computation. Much if what we classify as AI now is just massive number crunching. That’s not cheating – maybe that’s what we do as humans anyway.

But perhaps more significant than the technological issues are the ethical ones we now face. As Audrey Watters contends, AI is ideological. Neil Selwyn makes a pretty good case for why AI won’t succeed in education, which can be summarised as “education is fundamentally a human enterprise”. However, the concern about AI is not that it won’t deliver on the promise held forth by its advocates but, rather, that someday it will. Or rather that it will in the eyes of policy makers. And then the assumptions embedded in code will shape how education is realized, and if learners don’t fit that conceptual model, they will find themselves outside of the area in which compassion will allow a human to alter or intervene. Perhaps the greatest contribution of AI will be to make us realize how important people truly are in the education system.

25 Years of EdTech: 2015 – Digital Badges

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 27/07/2018 - 12:18

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Providing digital badges for achievements that can be verified and linked to evidence started with Mozilla’s open badge infrastructure in 2011. They were an idea that had been floating around for a while – that you could earn informal accreditation for online activity. What the Mozilla work provided was a technical infrastructure, so badges could be linked through to evidence and verified. Badges could be awarded for assessment (passing a quiz), but more interestingly for community action, such as contributing to an online forum.

Like many other edtech developments, digital badges had an initial flurry of interest from devotees but then settled into a pattern of more laborious long-term acceptance. They represent a combination of key challenges for educational technology:

  • realizing easy-to-use, scalable technology – the Mozilla specification provides this, and tools such as Credly make creating and distributing badges reasonably straightforward;
  • developing social awareness that gives them currency – badges may be fun, but for them to gain value they need to be recognised by employers and society more widely;
  • and providing the policy and support structures that make them valuable – we have complicated systems and quality control processes around formal recognition. If employers are to start valuing badges then similar structures may need to be in place to give confidence in their value. And then the question may become, what is the point of them if they’re indistinguishable from formal credit?

Of these challenges, only the first relates directly to technology; the more substantial ones relate to awareness and legitimacy. For example, if employers or institutions come to widely accept and value digital badges, then they will gain credence with learners, creating a virtuous circle. There is some movement in this area, particularly with regard to staff development within organizations and often linked with MOOCs. Perhaps more interesting is what happens when educators design for badges, breaking courses down into smaller chunks with associated recognition, and when communities of practice give badges value. Linked with eportfolios, and transferable credit, then badges can provide a way of surfacing the generic skills inherent in much of formal education. Currently, their use is at an indeterminate stage — neither a failed enterprise nor the mainstream adoption once envisaged, but I suspect we’ll see steady growth around specific enterprises.

25 Years of EdTech: 2014 – Learning analytics

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 23/07/2018 - 11:07

[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

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 16/07/2018 - 12:36

[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

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 06/07/2018 - 13:26

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

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 05/07/2018 - 11:07


(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

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 04/07/2018 - 10:29

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

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 21/06/2018 - 09:41

[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

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 13/06/2018 - 15:52

[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

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 12/06/2018 - 11:01

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

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 04/06/2018 - 13:40

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 if 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

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 04/06/2018 - 11:03

[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].