Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tired tech narratives - disruption at a price

There are a number of recurring narratives in this business that we all enjoy telling and hearing to the extent that repetition leads to belief; feel-good stories about how technology is changing education and society for the better. Although these stories have elements of truth they tend to accentuate the positive and in some cases become dangerous myths. Here are two such narratives that simply won't go away.

Firstly there is the old chestnut of digital natives and a naive belief that the kids/students will work everything out for themselves. Students are using all sorts of innovative digital tools to learn for themselves and this is pushing institutions to respond. Of course there are elements of truth here. There are numerous anecdotes of teenagers creating impressive tech start-ups and the often retold tales of toddlers trying to swipe a printed book and being amazed it doesn't work like an iPad. I don't doubt these but they are more exceptions rather than the rule. Yes, most children and teenagers are completely comfortable with technology but it doesn't mean that they can work out how to search, filter, collaborate, work, study and create without any assistance. I'm not sure either that students are driving educational change as we often hear at conferences. In my experience, students are good at adapting to the institution's teaching methods and even if some may well find the teaching uninspiring they simply find ways to cope since they need the qualification and have taken on a substantial loan in order to get it. Some are using technology to enhance their studies but many only use the tools offered by the institution. Education is changing as a result of digitalisation but the main drivers in my opinion are innovative teachers and insightful leaders, urged on by the ed tech industry; for better or for worse, but that is another story.

The second popular narrative is that of the future workplace. I've seen plenty inspiring accounts of innovative work spaces at high tech companies like Google or Apple where employees have project meetings on giant beanbags, play basketball or take a yoga break whenever they need inspiration. It looks very attractive and they are undoubtedly inspiring places to work. In the same narrative we hear about the growth of the gig economy where everyone works as a consultant moving seamlessly from project to project with breaks for competence development from time to time. Success is built on being flexible, constantly developing your skills, being able to reinvent yourself and always searching for new challenges. The word disruption occurs frequently in this narrative. Technology is disrupting traditional practices and a new flexible and ever-changing society is emerging offering opportunities and growth for those who are able to adapt.

However this narrative also has a dark side. The creative and innovative workplaces we see in these conference presentations are for a well-educated elite with the financial resources to tide them over between projects. For the vast majority, however, the modern workplace has a very different narrative with long hours, stressful schedules, low pay, few if any benefits and seldom knowing whether or not you'll be needed next week. The stars of the digital economy tend not to employ very many people and many of those who do work there are involved in the less glamorous side of operations; in the warehouses or working from home on low wages. The flip side of this gig economy are the people who scramble for zero hours contract jobs with no security and never knowing whether they will get paid next week at all. The digital revolution is not so attractive for those on the wrong side. See more on this in a BBC article, Why "cool" offices don't always make for a happier workforce.

So how about companies taking some social responsibility for all the job losses and problems their disruptive innovation causes? This issue is raised by András Baneth in a recent TEDx talk (see below). He takes examples like Uber, Airbnb and Facebook as companies that have come under hard criticism for the results of their operations and offers advice on how companies should take responsibility and enhance their reputation. This involves at a basic level at least admitting that your business has created some serious issues in society instead of simply denying any responsibility. Then the company can try to help tackle those issues, for example by finding ways to prevent the spread of hate and fake news or funding retraining initiatives for those whose businesses suffer due to their operations.

Disruption is generally viewed positively today and the narrative of bold innovative young entrepreneurs "taking on the establishment" and overturning the system nearly always goes down well at conferences. However disruption also has consequences. A deregulated market can make some people very rich but can also cast many more into unemployment, poverty or insecurity. Social media let everyone have their say but also make it easy to spread hate and prejudice. It may not be completely the fault of the messenger (such as Facebook) but they have certainly a major role and need to recognise this.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Towards virtual mobility

Virtual mobility is a concept that enables internationalisation for all by using digital media to let students collaborate on projects, modules and even entire courses without the need to travel. It can also enable teachers from partner universities in different countries to make virtual study visits as well as collaborate on course design and offering joint courses. Since the technology has been available for many years you would imagine that virtual mobility would be mainstream by now but sadly this is not true. For most people the concept of mobility refers only to physical mobility.

For the past two years I've been involved in a project at my university, called Global Classroom, to raise awareness of virtual mobility and the opportunities it offers. The main aim is to create a framework and organisation to establish international networking and collaboration as a key element in all courses at undergraduate and masters level at Linnaeus University. The project does not have the resources to make major changes in the organisation so we have focused on helping degree programme leaders to identify the degree of internationalisation in their programme from three perspectives (faculty, teacher and student) during workshops where they work from a self-assessment grid. They then select criteria that can be realistically fulfilled within, say, a year and we then help them to plan the process and raise the internationalisation level. We aim to raise the bar and then cascade the lessons learned to other programmes rather than trying to impose radical change. Take a tour around our project website for more information.

One inspiration for the project was the OUVM (Opening universities for virtual mobility) project that concluded last year. Partner universities from five countries offered a selection of online courses of 3-6 credits and students could study one of these and get credits from their own university as well as recognition that they had gained international study experience. This is the online equivalent of an Erasmus exchange in which so many European students participate and points the way towards offering students much more scope for mobility and intercultural exchange in the future. Virtual mobility may not be as exciting as actually travelling but if that option is not available it can still offer many advantages, not least learning the skill of collaborating online.

There are many advantages of promoting virtual mobility, for the students, staff and for the university as a whole. The most important aspect is making internationalisation a natural part of all studies rather than a brief adventure for a select few. Experience of working in an international environment and collaborating in multi-cultural groups is today an extremely important element in every graduate's CV and although the best experience is to actually travel to another country that opportunity is not available for all. The inclusive element of virtual mobility is therefore extremely important but seems not to be promoted so actively at many universities. Working with virtual mobility is also an opportunity to expand our cooperation with international partner universities. Furthermore virtual mobility can complement and enhance physical mobility by facilitating deeper collaboration between students before and after the physical visit.

Of course there are many obstacles. The most obvious is that any new practice involves considerable effort and time, often in short supply for teachers and leaders already under pressure. New methods, tools and routines must be developed and tested as well as partnerships established. Digital skills are essential as well as awareness of multi-cultural communication. Virtual mobility must be integrated into the syllabus and must lead to tangible rewards, primarily in the form of credits, not as an optional extra. One avenue we are exploring is using badges to reward participation in virtual mobility activities as additional recognition. This means that badges must be established as recognised credentials at the university and that process takes time.

We realise that the process will be a slow one but the word is spreading and there are already several promising initiatives. The key factor is of course management support and providing the time and resources for teachers to experiment with and implement different forms of virtual mobility.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Online, distance, blended, mobile, campus, hybrid - it's all about learning

We love to put labels on everything but the problem is that the object or concept that we label refuses to obediently stand still and remain true to the label we placed on it. Many concepts have changed significantly but remain trapped under an outdated label, charged with often inaccurate preconceptions and prejudices. This is very true in education, especially when discussing the use of technology, and has resulted in a host of terms to describe education that involves some element of technology to allow participation that is not strictly tied to a physical classroom.

I'm very uncomfortable with all the terms used to describe this field: online, distance, blended, mobile, hybrid, technology-enhanced, web-based etc. As soon as you add one of these epithets you put it in a box, apart from the mainstream term learning, thereby encouraging a polarisation between traditional (standard) and "alternative" forms. Being asked to read a printed book at home and write an essay on it is considered standard whereas doing the same thing on a screen is suddenly alternative and different.

Tony Bates has written an interesting post about a major survey of online and distance learning in Canada that he is involved in, What is online learning? Seeking definition. An essential part of such a survey is being able to define what types of education to include and not surprisingly there is a plethora of terms and definitions with considerable variation in interpretation between universities and colleges. The distinctions that existed 20 years ago have now become blurred and it is questionable whether some terms should be maintained at all.

Although from about the late 1990s until quite recently, most online learning was asynchronous, and based primarily on the use of text-based learning management systems, that context appears to be rapidly shifting, with more synchronous approaches either replacing or being combined with asynchronous learning (another definition of ‘blended’), and the increasing use of streamed audio and video. What is already clear from the piloting is that we are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what is happening.

For me all learning today is blended in some way or another: instruction and collaboration, online and on-site, synchronous and asynchronous. Labeling creates an illusion of order but in truth most education today involves some element of technology and it is becoming impossible to maintain clear definitions. Let's move on to using a mix of modern and traditional tools and methods to design courses that offer flexibility and inclusion allowing learners to participate and interact in a variety of ways and not be restricted to only one space, method or tool. It's about learning, using the media, tools and methods that are available today in the most appropriate way to support the learning outcomes. Labels confuse more than they enlighten.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Innovation through familiarity

Educational technology has mostly been used to simply continue doing what we have always done, the innovation element being that we can now do it digitally. We've seen this in the use of learning management systems, lecture capture, digital examination and e-books, all of which don't change the paradigm or challenge tradition but add important elements of access, flexibility and convenience. These have gained mainstream acceptance probably because they don't demand any radical rethink or major investment of time and effort. It seems that most of us feel daunted by change and if we are going to accept innovation it has to be wrapped in a familiar package and must not demand too much of our time. Take the computer. Even today we still use the qwerty keyboard inherited from the typewriter of 100 years ago despite many attempts at creating a more intuitive interface. We still refer to a desktop and put documents in folders. The new expressed in terms of the old to maintain a sense of security and minimise the shock of the new.

This is the theme of an intriguing article by Nir Eyal, People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently. He takes the example of how Americans learned to love sushi; instead of using Japanese names they made it out of familiar west coast ingredients and called it a California Roll. After that the real name could be safely introduced and now everyone eats it. This shows how defining the new in terms of the old is a wise ploy and Eyal therefore proposes the California Roll Rule: People don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently. How many innovations have flopped not because of any intrinsic fault or lack of potential but simply because they were just a bit too new, the wrong side of familiar.

Unfortunately, our aversion to things that are outside the norm is particularly hard on companies producing radical innovation — no matter how beneficial they may be. If using a new product does not feel familiar, it faces severe challenges.

Innovation tends to be incremental and takes time. What often happens is that something new is first adapted (tamed) to something familiar. For instance a lot of educational technology is first used to continue doing what we've always done, reinforcing the classroom or the lecture. In some cases the innovation ends in a dead end without ever fulfilling its potential, in other cases it starts breaking new ground only after several years of "tamed use". The development of open education is a case in point, starting with enormous potential but then developing into rather traditionally designed MOOCs and even becoming integrated into the regular higher education system and losing some important aspects of the concept of openness on the way. Virtual and augmented reality have taken many years to break through and one factor behind mass market acceptance was reviving the Pokemon craze; the new in terms of something old. The challenge for any innovation is staying true to its original spirit and avoiding being tamed too much. However it's a delicate balance. If you're too innovative noone will accept you and if you adapt to the traditional too much you lose your innovative spark. Innovation through familiarity..

As the pace of innovation accelerates, human behavior, not technological restraints, will be the deciding factor of whether products are adopted or discarded. If new products and services are to positively impact our lives, they must find a gateway into our daily routines.