Assessing The Past, Predicting The Future #edcmooc

Flying MachinesThis is the final week of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, so it is a time to look back and to look forward. What have I learned over the past five weeks, not only about the topic, but about the nature of the MOOC itself, and are MOOCs the way forward for education, or simply the latest fad? First, the reflection. I have really enjoyed engaging with the course materials and with the other course participants, through the discussion forums, Twitter conversations, Google Hangouts and other channels, but then I have become used to this way of learning over the past five or six years, so I was reasonably comfortable with it from the start. It could also be said that since I am no longer looking for full-time employment I have no more need for paper qualifications, and therefore my approach to the course, and to learning in general, has changed.

However, it would be easy to infer from all of the above that because of the very nature of the MOOC – free entry, high dropout rate, no formal qualification – that it is more ‘casual’ than traditional college or university courses. Not a bit of it. The course is highly-structured, deadlines are quite rigid, materials are well chosen and challenging, and tutor support is of the highest order. The standard of teaching is of a very high quality, at least on this MOOC, but unlike that in many conventional settings, it is highly focused and responsive to the needs of individual learners; feedback is more or less instant. There are no group lectures, but an introductory video to each block of study sets out clearly the themes and expectations for the week ahead. Whether these things are true of all MOOCs I have no idea, but for two very different takes on online learning I would recommend that you read this article, All Hail MOOCs. Just Don’t Ask If They actually Work, from Time magazine September 2013, and this post from the Learning with ‘e’s blog, The persistence of distance(learning) by Steve Wheeler.

“But what about assessment?”, I hear you ask, because while the internet has opened up the possibility of learning in all sorts of new ways, assessment still dominates much of our thinking and much of our conversation when it comes to education. Bear in mind that the course is only five weeks long, with a recommended study time of 5-7 hours per week, but since you asked, to ‘complete the course’ we have to submit a ‘digital artefact’ and evaluate the work of at least three other participants in the course, using agreed criteria – real peer assessment in action! The following notes are from the course guidance on the final assignment.

What do you mean by digital artefact?
We mean something that is designed to be experienced on and through the medbotium of the web. It will have the following characteristics:

  • it will contain a mixture of two or more of: text, image, sound, video, links.
  • it will be easy to access and view online.
  • it will be stable enough to be assessed for at least two weeks.

Try to have fun with this and use it as a chance to think broadly and creatively: anything goes in terms of the form of this assignment. As long as you keep the assessment criteria in mind you can be as experimental as you wish.

(Have FUN with this assessment? Doesn’t sound like an exam to me.)

Why do you want me to make a digital artefact?
Text is the dominant mode of expressing academic knowledge, but digital environments are multimodal by nature – they contain a mixture of text, images, sound, hyperlinks and so on. To express ourselves well on the web, we need to be able to communicate in ways that are ‘born digital’ – that work with, not against, the possibilities of the medium. This can be challenging when what we want to communicate is complex, especially for those who are used to more traditional forms of academic writing. Nevertheless, there are fantastic possibilities in digital environments for rethinking what it means to make an academic argument, to express understanding of complex concepts, and to interpret and evaluate digital work. In EDCMOOC, we have an opportunity to explore and experiment in a supportive and relatively low-stakes context. That’s why we want you to make an assignment that makes the most of the web – a digital artefact.

What topic should I choose?
There is a lot of flexibility in this assignment. You can choose to focus on the theme of ‘utopias and dystopias’, or on the theme of ‘being human’. You should use your artefact to express a question, an idea, a problem, a hope, a worry or a provocation that the course has raised for you. Consider how you can express something of your own context as an educator, student and/or technologist. What has the impact of this course been on your understanding of e- learning?

Actually, I am proposing to submit this series of blogposts as my digital artefact, but just for a bit of fun, I thought I would also try creating a short video clip which reflects a couple of the themes of the past month or so. The clip was created in iMovie, using the Trailer feature which allows you to choose which genre of film you are going to release (and makes things easier for beginners like me). It is also a very useful tool in the classroom if you are introducing young people to filmmaking, Thanks to a fortuitous tweet from one of my PLN, Kenny Pieper, I found these great templates for Planning a Better iMovie Trailer, which means you can spend some time working out what text to include – a good exercise in précis, since the more words you include the harder it is to read – and select your images in an appropriate sequence.

commonsThe images I used are from the Creative Commons, except the first three, which appear courtesy of my friends at Dreaming Methods and Inanimate Alice. The little running man was filmed on my phone at a street crossing in Girona, simply because it made me smile. I cropped it in iMovie itself using the cropping tool before inserting into the clip. The reason for creating the trailer was to encourage me to learn something about iMovie, which I had never used, and to express one or two of the course themes in a short timeframe.

One of these was what seemed to be the view of many technological determinists, that increasing technological advances will inevitably lead to a dystopian future, and the other was the fascinating idea that our use of metaphor tends to shape as well as reflect our view of the world. The green man on the ‘information highway’ is a very simple metaphor for the feeling that many people have when trying to navigate the world wide web – that they are in a very busy and potentially dangerous place – and he may also represent those ‘eco-warriors’ amongst us who are concerned that advances in technology are not made at the expense of the sustainability of the planet. I hope you find it interesting and amusing, and please feel free to evaluate it using the agreed criteria below.

Assessment criteria

These are the elements peer markers will be asked to consider as they engage with your artefact. You should make sure you know how your work will be judged by reading these criteria carefully before you begin.

  1. The artefact addresses one or more themes clearly relevant to the course
  2. The artefact demonstrates an understanding of one or more key concept from the course
  3. The artefact has something to say about education
  4. The choice of media is appropriate for the message
  5. The artefact stimulates a reaction in you, as its audience, e.g. emotion, thinking, action

So what of the future of MOOCs themselves? What I liked about taking part in the MOOC was the collaborative aspect of the learning – the sharing of ideas, the conversations around the key topics, and to some extent the random nature of some of the interactions. We were advised from the start that it would be impossible to contribute to every forum, to respond to every text, and to keep track of everything which was going on. This is an aspect of MOOCs which I imagine many people will find difficult. Similarly, if everything is conducted online, you could argue that the ‘human element’ is lost, and that there is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face, but one of the advantages of MOOCs is that they bring together (virtually) people from all over the world. The fact that the MOOC is free is important, allowing access to people regardless of their means, but what I find particularly appealing is this key message – when the focus of education is on the taking part, everyone’s a winner.

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Redefining The Human #edcmooc

brain

Creative Commons Image by digitalbob8.

From ‘reasserting the human’, this week we move on to looking at ‘redefining the human’ in the final block of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. Last week I wrote about how current educational theories and practices are largely based on differing versions of humanist philosophy. Now we are being asked to consider a rather different perspective on ‘being human’ in the digital age: the notion that we are already posthuman, and that ‘human being’ is a variously constructed social category, not a pre-determined and fixed entity with universal characteristics. Instrumental posthumanists, for example, treat the human body and human life as things that can and ought to be optimised by technologies. Pacemakers, cosmetic surgery, prostheses, exercise equipment that provides biofeedback data, genetically modified food, diet supplements and Google glass, for example, are all posthuman technologies that are already widely used in the ‘developed’ world, which begs the question, to what extent can we continue to enhance the human body and mind before we redefine what it is to be ‘human’, and what are the implications for education?

At the same time, where instrumental posthumanism is merely the integration of post-industrial technologies with humanist values, critical posthumanist theories challenge the very values and assumptions on which humanism is based, and though varied in nature, share the view that humanism is a limiting and most often oppressive ideology that needs careful examination. Humanism often includes the belief that ‘technology’ is the opposite of ‘natural humanity.’ Critical posthumanists do not see these as opposed: the human body is just as ‘technological’ or ‘mechanical’ as the digital device on which you’re reading this post. The brain and the heart rely on electricity, just as DNA is a kind of programming. Critical posthumanism holds that technology is itself neither good nor bad, helpful nor hurtful. It is the contexts in which it is used, the conditions under which it is produced, etc., that make it a positive or negative thing.

In True Skin, this short science-fiction film by Stephan Zlotescu, synthetic enhancement has become the norm, and the boundary between human and machine has been erased (think Pop-On Body Spares for humans). At the end of the film, the protagonist, when facing death – at least the death of his current body – takes advantage of an internet service which backs up all of his memories, which can then be inserted into his future (new) self. Sound familiar? It’s that old two-way ‘computer as human brain, human brain as computer’ metaphor (see previous post MOOCs and Metaphors).

What this notion says about the nature of mind, memory and learning, and the ways in which technological mediation is positioned in relation to it, is a theme which is also picked up in this week’s reading assignments, in particular in an article in Atlantic magazine in 2008 by Nicholas Carr, entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?,  a defining polemic which became the water cooler around which critics of the internet gathered to bemoan the demise of critical thinking;-

Are We Human, Or Are We Dancers? #edcmooc

Humanity-2.0I’m not quite on my knees looking for the answer, but the second (and final) block of study on the E-Learning and Popular Culture MOOC kicked off this week with a challenging look at what it is to be ‘human’, how that definition has shifted throughout the ages, the ways in which it is perceived to be under threat from the advance of technology, and the implications for the future of education. To listen, as we have done, to Professor Steve Fuller’s wonderfully erudite and idiosyncratic take on the history of ‘being human’ and to reflect on whether the ‘humanist project’ as it is described is still worth pursuing, click on this Tedx Warwick lecture from 2009. Believe me, you will be a better person for it.

In the Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, Nimrod Aloni tells us that the term ‘Humanistic Education’ is generally used to designate a variety of educational theories and practices that are committed to the world-view and ethical code of Humanism; that is, positing the enhancement of human development, well-being, and dignity as the ultimate end of all human thought and action – beyond religious, ideological, or national ideals and values. Historically, humanistic education can be traced back to the times of classical Athens with its central notion of Paideia, a few centuries later to the times of ancient Rome with it central notion of Humanitas, then the Renaissance’s Humanists, and in the early 19th century it was the German educator Neithammer who coined the concept of Humanism as indicating liberal education toward full humanity. Today, you will often hear this expressed in terms such as, ‘the need to educate the whole child‘. UNESCO, in its Education For The 21st Century, talks about being ‘committed to a holistic and humanistic vision of quality education worldwide, the realisation of everyone’s right to education, and the belief that education plays a fundamental role in human, social and economic development.’

The question before us now is this: does technology enable or inhibit such an ideal? There is no doubt that it is new technologies which allow us to connect and to network, and to provide access for many of those people who would otherwise be isolated from mainstream educational institutions – otherwise there would be no such thing as the MOOC – but for some, losing other ‘human’ attributes as a result of our over-dependence on machines is too heavy a price to pay. For my generation, this topic first arose as a serious concern with the introduction of electronic calculators in schools, and the debate shows no signs of abating. Consider this, from a 2004 article called ‘The Human Touch‘ by Dr Lowell Monke, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wittenberg:-

“A computer can inundate a child with mountains of information. However, all of this learning takes place the same way: through abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know a tree–by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these first hand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations–muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air. The computer cannot even approximate any of this. Here we encounter the ambiguity of technology: its propensity to promote certain qualities while sidelining others. McLuhan called this process amplification and amputation. He used the microphone as an example. The microphone can literally amplify one’s voice, but in doing so it reduces the speaker’s need to exercise his own lung power. Thus one’s inner capacities may atrophy.

heartThis phenomenon is of particular concern with children, who are in the process of developing all kinds of inner capacities. Examples abound of technology’s circumventing the developmental process: the student who uses a spell checker instead of learning to spell, the student who uses a calculator instead of learning to add–young people sacrificing internal growth for external power.

Often, however, this process is not so easily identified. An example is the widespread use of computers in pre-schools and elementary schools to improve sagging literacy skills. What could be wrong with that? Quite a bit, if we consider the prerequisites to reading and writing. We know that face-to-face conversation is a crucial element in the development of both oral and written communication skills. On the one hand, conversation forces children to generate their own images, which provide connections to the language they hear and eventually will read. This is one reason why reading to children and telling them stories is so important. Television and computers, on the other hand, generally require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images.”

I wonder how Monke would respond to this recent television advertisement to promote an Indian mobile communications company, which plays with the concept of a born-digital baby.

I believe that Monke is setting up a false dichotomy here, and that developing children need a balance in their lives between technology-enhanced learning and healthy physical activity, wherever possible in an outdoor environment. Nor do I accept that television and computers ‘require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images’. What they require is that the viewer has the literacy skills necessary to understand how, why, when, where and by whom the images were created, and most importantly the purpose for which they were designed – in other words, that they learn to become digitally literate. However, in the interests of fairness, I will leave the final word on the matter (for now) to Monke, who is ready for the ‘all about balance’ argument;

“The response that I often hear to this criticism–that we just need to balance computer use in school with more ‘hands-on’ activities (and maybe a little character education)–sounds reasonable. Certainly schools should help young people develop balanced lives. But the call for balance within schools ignores the massive commitment of resources required to make computers work at all and the resultant need to keep them constantly in use to justify that expense. Furthermore, that view of balance completely discounts the enormous imbalance of children’s lives outside of school. Children typically spend nearly half their waking life outside of school sitting in front of screens. Their world is saturated with the artificial, the abstract, the mechanical. Whereas the intellectual focus of schools in the rural society of the 19th century compensated for a childhood steeped in nature and concrete activity, balance today requires a reversal of roles, with schools compensating for the overly abstract, symbolic, and artificial environment that children experience outside of school.”

Footnote:

It would appear, from what I have learned this week, that in a recent blogpost, The Power To Make A Difference, I was espousing Aloni’s fourth form of humanistic education, that which is most often identified with Radical Education or Critical Pedagogy and with the counter-hegemonic pedagogical theories of Freire, Apple, Giroux, Simon, and Kozol. From this vantage point, to consider educational issues independent of the larger cultural, social, and economic context involves either serious ignorance or cynical, if not criminal, deception. Poverty, crime, homelessness, drug addiction, wars, ecological crises, suicide, illiteracy, discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, technocratic consciousness, and the disintegration of communities and families, to name some of our most pressing problems, are facts of life that effect directly the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral development of the great majority of children in our culture. Hence, radical educators argue, ‘pedagogy should become more political and the political more pedagogical’. This implies three major changes in our educational system. It requires:

  • that educational discourse, policy, and practice would deal directly with the notions of power, struggle, class, gender, resistance, social justice, and possibility;
  • that teachers would aim to emancipate and empower their students towards the kind of critical consciousness and assertive point of view that allows people to gain control over their lives; and
  • that teachers, in the words of Giroux, ‘would struggle collectively as transformative intellectuals. . . to make public schools democratic public spheres where all children, regardless of race, class, gender, and age, can learn what it means to be able to participate fully in the ongoing struggle to make democracy the medium through which they extend the potential and possibilities of what it means to be human and to live in a just society.’

 

Learning Independently – Together

“School is broken and everyone knows it. Public schools from kindergarten to graduation have been crumbling for decades, dropout rates are high, and test scores are low. The value – in every sense – of a college education and degree is hotly contested in the news every day. Students face unprecedented debt in an economy with a dwindling middle class and lessening opportunities for social mobility. This has a significant effect on lives and the economy itself.”

KioThus begins, controversially, Don’t Go Back To School – A Handbook for Learning Everything by the American writer, teacher and graduate school dropout Kio Stark, a comprehensive examination of the alternatives to long-established and formal educational pathways. I should point out before proceeding further that ‘school’ in this context is used to denote formal education in the broadest (American) sense, and mainly in the context of higher education, rather than ‘high school’ or ‘secondary school’ as we in the UK would understand it.

The text consists largely of a series of interviews with successful entrepreneurs – over 100 of them – who have, for a variety of reasons, eschewed expensive university courses in favour of independent learning. And herein lies the interesting element of the book for me – Stark’s definition of ‘independent learning’.

“Independent learning suggests ideas such as ‘self-taught’ or ‘autodidact’. These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools. Almost all of the people I interviewed talked about the importance of connections they forged to communities and experts, and access to other learners. Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.”

The author goes on to reveal from her research four important features of almost every form of learning outside school:

  • It isn’t done alone
  • For many professionals, credentials aren’t necessary, and the processes for attaining credentials are changing
  • The most effective, satisfying learning is learning which is more likely to happen out of school
  • People who are happiest with their learning process and most effective at learning new things – in any educational environment – are people who are learning for the right reasons and who reflect on their own way of learning to figure out which processes and methods work best for them.

The final section of the book provides practical advice on where to find online collaborative learning systems, free and low-cost online learning platforms including MOOCs (see below), how to access scholarly publishing and academic research, and a ‘further reading’ list.

By coincidence rather than consequence, and as a firm believer that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks, I made the bold move last week of signing up to take part in my first ever MOOC, which, for the uninitiated, stands for ‘massive, open, online course’, or, as Wikipedia would have it, ‘an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants.’

This particular course, E-learning and Digital Cultures, is being offered by the University of Edinburgh and Coursera, one of the biggest of the MOOC providers, and runs for 5 weeks through November and December, with a commitment of 5-7 hours a week. The course tutors promise that it is ‘not about e-learning’ but ‘an invitation to view online educational practices through a particular lens – that of popular and digital culture’.

“E-learning and Digital Cultures is aimed at teachers, learning technologists, and people with a general interest in education who want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age. The course is about how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through “narratives”, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology. We’ll explore some of the most engaging perspectives on digital culture in its popular and academic forms, and we’ll consider how our practices as teachers and learners are informed by the difference of the digital. We’ll look at how learning and literacy is represented in popular digital-, (or cyber-) culture, and explore how that connects with the visions and initiatives we are seeing unfold in our approaches to digital education.”

The plan is to take my friend Inanimate Alice along to find out where she stands in relation to e-learning, and indeed digital culture. Having just returned from an interesting and fruitful tour of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Dutch Game Garden, we are keen to explore further how Alice’s personal journey could be used as the starting point for engaging young people (particularly girls) in the creative industries, and how this relates to the current seismic shift in publishing trends.

Should be fun, and I will of course be reporting back. After all, there really is no such thing as a free education, is there?

Footnote. In the course of writing this blogpost, and with half an eye on Twitter, as you do, my attention was drawn to this post by Will Gayhart on The Death of Graduate Schools of Education.

 

Too Much Information

digital-info-literacyThe ease with which we are now able to access information, which is, after all, the first requirement in the acquisition of knowledge, is what makes the development of literacy so markedly different in this century from how it might have looked for the best part of the previous one. In the typical classroom of fifty years ago, sources of information were severely limited, and what was in the teacher’s head would constitute most of it. To say that things have changed is such an understatement that it hardly needs to be said, but the pervasive nature of the internet has been largely responsible for the term ‘information literacy’ and the sense of urgency with which it has entered the educational lexicon. No one disputes that, more than ever, the ability to find, sift, sort and use information is a key component in the development of an educated mind , but we are all of us still in the early stages of understanding the full implications of the free flow of information across the electronic networks. What the term ‘information literacy’ actually means, and how – in practical terms – it can be developed, is still up for discussion, as are the means by which teachers can ensure that all learners meet this essential learning outcome by the time they have reached the age of twelve or thirteen:

“To help me develop an informed view, I am exploring the techniques used to influence my opinion. I can recognise persuasion and assess the reliability of information and credibility and value of my sources.”

Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, Literacy and English Outcome Level Three (age 12-13 approximately)

It is quite clear that In order to develop this ability, there are a number of questions which first have to be addressed, including:

  • What ARE the techniques used to influence opinion? (emotive language? scaremongering? appeal to the senses?, use of statistics?)
  • How DO you recognise persuasion? (separating fact from opinion)
  • How do you assess the reliability of ANY information, but especially that found online? (who produced it and what was their objective?)
  • How do you ASCERTAIN the source of information, even before you attempt to assess its credibility? (or, do you know how to trace the source of a text?)

A  very useful addition to the ‘information literacy’ discussion this week has been the release of web player Mozilla’s Web Literacy Standard. Cutting across traditionally recognised subject spaces, the Standard is grouped under three strands – Exploring, Building and Connecting – and is described by the developers as ‘a map of competencies and skills that Mozilla and our community of stakeholders believe are important to pay attention to when getting better at reading, writing and participating on the web’. While some of our information still comes from traditional sources – word of mouth, newspapers, books, television – we are increasingly moving online, so that ‘information literacy’ and understanding the world wide web may ultimately become one and the same thing.  Anything which takes us towards a better understanding of how that relationship works must surely be a good thing.

Standard.jpg

For further information about the Web Literacy Standard and other Mozilla web tools click here.

To download a copy of the National Information Literacy Framework Scotland click here.

New on Storify: Teaching – An Academic Career?

Given my conviction that storytelling is at the heart of learning, I was always going to be intrigued by a new curation tool and website which makes the creation of stories simple and intuitive. Alerted to Storify through my Twitter PLN (Personal Learning Network) where so much of my learning comes from these days, I decided to experiment with it and effectively write this latest blogpost using it as an alternative platform. To stimulate some discussion around a topic I posed the question ‘What is an academic?’ on Twitter and followed it up with ‘Do teachers regard themselves as academics, and would they choose to do so anyway?’. The responses were intriguing. I saved the tweets to my ‘Storypad’ (see notes on how to do this at the end of the blogpost), added some text and quotes from other sources, and published my story under the Education section. Unfortunately, because this is not a self-hosted blog, I am unable to embed the story here in its original format but I have added a screenshot of the introduction to let you see what it looks like. If you want to read the whole story just follow this link to My Storify

To create a story using Storify, just follow these simple steps:-

  1. Decide on a topic or theme
  2. Decide which media to include in your search (available sources include Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google, YouTube and others)
  3. Search media
  4. Save chosen media items to Storypad
  5. Click and drag selected items to story template
  6. Re-arrange structure as required
  7. Add text and commentary
  8. Publish to Storify

To save tweets to the Storypad (or desktop):-

  1. Open selected tweet
  2. Click on the day or time tag at the top left (this opens the tweet in a new window)
  3. Click on the ‘Storify’ symbol below the tweet
  4. Save to Storypad or an existing story (text or comment can be added at this stage if you want it)

As storytelling and essay writing become more digitally based, I think Storify provides an attractive platform for learners and teachers to experiment with new formats, It also gives the teacher a context in which to discuss issues such as plagiarism, cut and paste, ‘value added’, creativity, effective internet searching, essay structure and effective storytelling. What do you think?

 

[View the story “Getting started” on Storify]