Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Searching for open educational resources

One of the often quoted barriers to the adoption of open educational resources (OER) is the difficulty of searching for them in a reliable way. Below is a nice infographic that describes a service I use regularly, in particular for finding photos to use on this blog, namely CCSearch. Here you can search for Creative Commons material in the most common repositories such as Flickr, Google Images, Fotopedia and Wikimedia Commons for photos or Jamendo and SoundCloud for music.

Another tactic is to make an advanced Google search but that requires good information retrieval skills to get all the right search criteria. My colleagues at the Blekinge Institute of Technology here in south-east Sweden have formulated an excellent Google search for teachers that is open for all and that searches only for OER.

Try it at OER@BTH.
How to Search for Openly Licensed Educational Resources
by coerll. Learn about infographics software.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Open Learning Recognition

Here's a publication I'd like to recommend from the OERTest project and my colleagues in EFQUEL.

The OERTest project has released its final results in the form a publication, entitled “Open Learning Recognition: Taking Open Educational Resources a Step Further”. The book is the fruit of two years of research by 8 European partners, and provides the reader with the foundation for the development of envisaged framework, organised into the four topics: assessment methods; requirements and standards of resources; credentialisation, certification and recognition and inter-institutional collaboration. The third chapter is devoted to different scenarios of open learning in order to obtain in-depth understanding of the OER challenges and bring closer a basis for identifying vital differences among them to better address these challenges.

The OERTest guidelines and the OERTest Learning passport are presented in the following chapter. Thus this part of the publication essentially brings to the fore transparency and portability concepts. The fifth chapter lays out the extent to which the assessment and certification of learning outcomes achieved through OER is feasible for Higher Education Institutions of different profiles. The results are predicated on a feasibility study undertaken amongst five universities. This publication concludes with the possible impacts of the open learning recognition through the university networks that are dealt with in the last chapter.

Download the publication Learning recognition.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A new layered model for education

CC BY-NC-SA Some rights reserved by Sanctu
This week saw the emergence of yet another player in the MOOC market as a group of 12 UK universities under the leadership of Open University formed a new company called  Futurelearn (UK universities embrace the free, open, online future of higher education powered by The Open University). They plan to offer a range of massive open online courses starting next year and thus offering an alternative to the US-based established trio of edX, Coursera and Udacity.

Once again the media is full of enthusiastic quotes from academic leaders and politicians praising this move as revolutionary and it certainly opens up new avenues in higher education particularly in light of the sharp rises in student fees in England and Wales over recent years. However, sometimes it feels as if online learning has only just been invented with the arrival of all the MOOCs of the past year and that there is now only one model in town. The diversity of online learning is seldom discussed and the fact that plenty excellent online education already takes place as part of established universities' regular portfolios. Does the advent of heavyweight MOOC consortia mean that participating universities will transfer existing online courses to the MOOC world and keep their core business of traditional campus teaching under their own roof?

Instead of seeing all this as some kind of conflict between the the old and the new I think we are seeing the establishment of universal access to education. There is an unprecedented global demand for education that schools and universities cannot ever hope to meet since the actual buildings of these institutions can only accommodate so many students. Even if we could build new institutions every week they could never hope to cope with the global demand for education. By making educational resources freely available on the net we can make education accessible to all even if there are major infrastructure problems in many countries. With the help of internet cafes, libraries, learning centres and smart mobiles educational resources can be accessed even by the millions without any hope of owning a computer or mobile.

What is now being established is a free basic layer offering universal access to learning resources and organised course models. This content is provided by institutions (such as the MOOC providers) as well as millions of teachers, students and experts who share their knowledge under Creative Commons licenses. On top of that foundation we can augment the free material with service layers such as teaching, tutoring, guidance, collaboration opportunities, quality assurance, assessment, feedback and examination. These services may be offered by one institution as in the traditional campus university or by various organisations and the student is able to pick and mix from many providers. These add-on layers will be organised in many ways: free, for-profit, high status, bundled, certified, professional, peer-driven etc.

The key is that the foundation layer is freely available for all. Some people will have the skills to learn in peer groups using this material with the simple goal for learning for the sheer sake of learning. Others will be willing to pay for extra tuition and many will be able to pay for examination and certification. There may be low-cost or free certification schemes such as open badges and there will be high status certification at a cost. Some will want the whole experience under one roof and will continue to attend campus universities since they provide all layers in one package and with credible credentials at the end. Others who cannot afford the campus university will need to find a package that suits their learning needs and their financial situation.

So maybe instead of seeing the present trends in open education as a disruptive we should see it all as the establishment of a new educational ecosystem with this layered model emerging. Where access to learning resources is a fundamental right but with many options for interacting and benefitting from them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Headhunting by MOOC

Learn by sabeth718, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  sabeth718

It's hard to go a week without using the M-word so here's this week's MOOC update. The latest twist in the tale of finding a good business model for MOOCs comes from Coursera and an article in the Chronicle of Higher EducationProviders of Free MOOC's Now Charge Employers for Access to Student Data. Coursera has just announced that they are offering companies access to information about students who might be interesting to employ. This is an opt-in scheme for all parties and it offers an interesting new avenue for companies wishing to recruit new talent.

"Here's how it works: A participating employer is given a list of students who meet its requirements, usually the best-performing students in a certain geographic area. If the company is interested in one of those students, then Coursera sends an e-mail to the student asking whether he or she would be interested in being introduced to that company. The company pays a flat fee to Coursera for each introduction, and the college offering the course gets a percentage of that revenue, typically between 6 and 15 percent."

This type of recruitment is also offered by Udacity and the article cites a few success stories of top MOOC students who landed jobs at attractive companies as a direct result of their informal learning. Both Coursera and Udacity are examining ways of assessing soft skills (as are many other educators) by analysing student interactions in the course discussion forum. Often companies are more interested in a student's ability in teamwork, taking initiative and creative thinking than in traditional academic skills and therefore this type of link-up between education and workplace offers new opportunities.

Why should employers be interested in students who are participating in a free online course that doesn't even offer formal university credits? The fact that someone has taken the initiative to try a new form of education that involves a considerable amount of self-discipline and independent work is a positive sign to an employer. Many courses involve considerable networking and the ability to search for relevant information and such factors, combined with the actual subject matter of the course, can be interesting to employers. However, this move shows above all how informal learning is beginning to gain formal recognition. Combine this with the Open Badges initiative and suddenly there are several alternative educational paths that may be just as likely to lead you to employment as the traditional road.

According to Udacity's Sebastian Thrun:

"Problems are never solved in isolation in the real world," he said. He said that Udacity might share with an employer someone who has helped 90 to 100 people in discussion forums. "That specific skill has been a better predictor of placement success than academic performance."

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Completion rates in online education

I'm concerned that we continue to discuss the issue of low completion rates in online courses and see the online delivery form as the problem. Lower completion rates are seen as evidence that online education is inherently inferior to the traditional classroom model and that we must simply accept it as "the next best thing". By using terminology such as distance learning, e-learning and net learning we accept that this type of education is a sub category of the wider concept of "learning" which normally takes place in a classroom with teacher and students in the same physical room. Online learning is assumed to be mostly self-study and students lack the dynamic discussion and interaction of a live classroom. I think the vast majority of teachers and especially academic decision makers still think this is true and see educational technology as something only relevant to so-called distance learning. However the factors behind high completion rates are the same regardless of whether the course is on campus or completely online; namely social interaction, a sense of belonging and a supportive learning environment.

A new article by Jacqueline Aundree Baxter of the UK's Open University in IRRODL (International review of research in open and distance learning),Who am I and what keeps me going? Profiling the distance learning student in higher education, links the issue of completion rates to factors such as group dynamics, teamwork and the teacher's role as mentor and facilitator.

"The research revealed insights into factors linked to the expectations, identities, and support of students which proved influential in terms of their resilience and motivation to remain on course."

It's interesting to read how most students in this study expected their course to be mostly self-study and were positively surprised when online collaboration was expected of them. Here the popular image of online education affects student expectations. Every student will bring with her/him their own preconceptions, fears, insecurities and previous academic experience and the success of each student depends on establishing a sense of belonging, a supportive environment and a can-do attitude. Students have widely varying levels of experience in online collaboration and some may feel inadequate at first. The teacher's role of setting the tone and providing reassurance to the hesitant is crucial in the early stages.

"Expectations and beliefs about work and study roles have been found to be important in the retention of students and professionals. Initial expectations which are not well managed can lead to a sense of let-down and erosion of confidence and feelings of agency, which if not addressed lead rapidly to attrition."

Some of the key factors described in the article for boosting completion rates, regardless of delivery form, are:
  • Creating realistic expectations and a clear structure from the outset. The teacher's role in this is crucial.
  • Reducing factors that make students doubt and increasing factors that make students want to stay .
  • Building a sense of community is essential and, once established, students will support and encourage each other to continue even when the going gets tough.
  • Timely teacher interventions when students feel inadequate to the task in hand are worth their weight in gold.
It's not the form of the course that is crucial. It's not about campus versus distance or dividing education into convenient compartments. It's about creating a sense of belonging where students learn how to learn in a supportive environment and where no one ever needs to feel they're on their own. This environment can be created and facilitated with the help of educational technology but it can also be created in a more traditional classroom environment. The basic ingredients are the same and it's that we should be discussing more. Let's talk about learning and take the e- as default.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Drowning in e-mail

Despite the fact that there are much smarter ways of communicating and especially collaborating most people still seem stuck on e-mail. We all complain about e-mail overload but continue to send draft versions of documents back and forth with copies to all. It's inefficient, time-wasting, stressful and sometimes pointless but we just won't quit.

Here's an excellent short video that reveals the horrors of collaborating by e-mail.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Top IT issues

Server room by torkildr, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  torkildr

What's the trend of the year in educational technology? Most people would immediately shout out MOOCs (as I predicted way back in January, 2012 - the year of the MOOC) but according to an Educause survey, Top-10 IT issues 2012,  the most important concerns are not whether to join the MOOC movement but the fundamental issue of how to integrate IT into all of the university's activities and develop more mature strategies for the use of technology.

The survey asked a panel of higher education IT experts what the biggest single IT-realted issue facing their institution had been in 2012. Here's their top ten:
  1. Updating IT professionals' skills and roles to accommodate new technologies and changing IT delivery models
  2. Supporting IT consumerization and bring-your-own device programs
  3. Developing a cloud strategy
  4. Improving the institution's operational efficiency through IT
  5. Integrating IT into institutional decision-making
  6. Using analytics to support the important institutional outcomes
  7. Funding IT initiatives
  8. Transforming the institution's business with IT
  9. Supporting research with high-performance computing, large data, and analytics
  10. Establishing and implementing IT governance throughout the institution
Source: "Educause Top-Ten IT Issues 2012" from Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR)

The common thread here is the need to integrate technology use into all areas of the university from the management down and to ensure that staff have the right competence to deal with this change. IT is no longer simply a technology issue and is no longer limited to the IT department; it supports all processes and affects every member of staff. Educational technology is moving from a marginal pioneer movement of enthusiasts to mainstream and default. Institutional strategies are now needed where before there were simply uncoordinated grassroots initiatives. The tools and software that were once provided in-house are now freely available in the cloud and at the same time the carefully controlled infrastructure of university owned computer labs is being replaced by students using their own devices and expecting access anywhere any time.

The challenges facing the role of IT in higher education are finding strategies of benefitting from the diversity and freedom of cloud-based solutions and personal devices while maintaining some level of control and security. The survey highlight above all else the rapidly changing role of the university IT department.

"This year's list transcends the IT org chart with two predominant themes: the IT organization's obligation to the institution; and the IT organization's relationship to technology outside the institution. The former views the IT organization as an enabler and partner in helping colleges and universities adapt to and even capitalize on changing realities and needs via automation (Issue #4), analytics (Issue #6), business transformation (Issue #8), and research computing (Issue #9). It also recognizes that the IT organization's relationship with institutional leaders must be effective for it to truly support institutional priorities, by integrating information technology into institutional decision-making (Issue #5), funding information technology strategically (Issue #7), and establishing and implementing IT governance throughout the institution (Issue #10)."

Read more in an article in Campus TechnologyReflecting on the Top IT Issues of 2012

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Online cheating - the discussion rolls on

Cheating Cheaters and the Cheaters Who L by Mr_Stein, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Mr_Stein

The debate about cheating in online courses seems never-ending and, honestly, as long as we set assignments where the answers can easily be found on the net it's not going to go away. Tony Bates writes about the problem in a post called Tools to prevent online cheating. He refers to a recent post by Ki Mae Heussner on Gigaom, Five ways online education can keep its students honest, which lists methods to counter student cheating. These methods involve setting up web cameras to watch students as they take the test, keystroke pattern recognition, browser lockdown and anti-plagiarism software.

If you want to test a student's ability to remember facts then traditional invigilated examinations are still probably the most effective method, though far from foolproof. An alternative often used around the world is local learning centres that can offer students in the region the chance to take tests in an invigilated environment in cooperation with the university. In these situations you can easily have ID checks and ensure that the right person is sitting the exam.

Online tests, however, are always going to be problematic unless we simply stop using this type of examination. A web meeting using for example Skype where the teacher can question the student face-to-face is ideal and reliable but too time consuming for classes with more than a small number of participants. However continuous assessment through a variety of assignments and using different media can give a reliable picture of the students' ability since the teacher can learn to recognize the student's style of expression. The key however is to base assessment on tasks that demand relating practical experience with personal learning; thus making the answers so personal and specific that it is virtually impossible to cheat.

Bates' conclusion however puts the cheating issue into perspective. Cheating means you have missed the point of education and the main person you're cheating is yourself.

"Cheating is often the result of a poor educational process or experience. Once again, this comes down to the distinction between learning as transferring information vs learning as a developmental process. If, as I do, you believe education is a developmental process, it is the student in the end who loses from cheating, because they have missed the point of the exercise, which is self development and growth."