31 March 2013

My new favourite journal.

I have a new favourite journal, even though I've only ever read two articles from it.  I searched my old blog posts for a reference to the first one, but shockingly, it would appear I've never actually mentioned it here.

The journal in question is Psychological Science in the Public Interest, compiled by the Association for Psychological Science.  The APS describes the journal:
"a unique journal featuring comprehensive and compelling reviews of issues that are of direct relevance to the general public. These reviews are written by blue ribbon teams of specialists representing a range of viewpoints, and are intended to assess the current state-of-the-science with regard to the topic."
Note that term "reviews of issues".  All too commonly, journals are full of individual papers that are too technical for anyone outside of the field of study, and pushing the point of view of the authors/researchers involved.

Not so PSPI.  Here we have a journal dedicated to identifying important research and summarising the state of knowledge and quality of research across the subject, such that people outside the research field can base their practices on the evidence.  This calls to mind Ben Goldacre's submission to the UK government, Building Evidence into Education, as even teachers who attempt to follow new findings tend to be tricked into following ideologically-led movements through the difficulty in obtaining actual evidence.

Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence
The first article that brough PSPI to my attention was entitled Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence (free to read as PDF), and it reviewed the evidence supporting the extremely popular notion of "learning styles" in education, concluding that
"at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number."
Note that the article never claims that learning styles don't exist, or that research into learning styles should cease, but that the current state of knowledge of learning styles offers no demonstrable benefit to the classroom teacher.  This kicked off a bit of controversy which is summarised briefly on Wikipedia: the reviewers chose the papers to include based on the rigour of their experimental design, which led them to omit many of the most cited papers on learning styles, which only goes to show that the most cited papers are not in any position to prove anything, having employed sub-standard experimental methodologies.

(I discovered the paper via a forum link to an article on Chronicle.com)

Improving Students' Learning with Effective Learning Techniques
The second article, which I stumbled upon thanks to a friend linking to a Time magazine article on Facebook.  It's called Improving Students' Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Education Psychology, and it reviews the literature supporting 10 different study techniques, concluding that most of what students do to study isn't particularly effective.  It's also worth noting that a lot of what they advise against is precisely what I was told to do in "study skills" lessons at high school and university.  As has been observed by many people, what is taught in study skills classes and what successful students actually do are two very different things....

I'll hopefully give a more in-depth review of the article once term's over and I'm able to devote a bit more time to it, but I'd like to also note that they make the mistake of criticising cramming without the qualification that cramming, while not the best way to learn, is still the best way to pass an exam, and that our school system still rewards it as a practice (particularly when you know that you're not continuing with the subject next year).  In fact, one training course I took at work several years ago was just two days of cramming followed immediately by the exam.  When one of the delegates asked the trainer why the exam wasn't a week later, the trainer said (with a straight face!) that they'd tried that and more people failed.  He completely missed the point that this really was in no way a good reflection on his teaching methods.

30 March 2013

"Open", but no "source"....

While looking at open educational resources (OERs) for the OU MOOC H817, I am reminded of one of the big failures I identified in "open" materials right from the early days.

The Creative Common aimed to create something analogous to the open source movement in computing.  In open source, whenever you get an application, you are entitled to a copy of the "source code", that is the program in an editable manner, so that you can change its functionality easily.

The Creative Commons did very little to replicate this, with most items released on a Creative Commons license being released in their finished form only.  Yes, you can take material from a JPEG image or an MP3 file and reuse it, but the end result will be heavily degraded.

Just search YouTube for "best science experiments" or "best piano cats" or anything of the like, and you'll find a very blurry video made by editing a series of slightly blurry videos together -- at every stage, quality is lost.

Wikimedia Commons has made efforts to correct this, by encouraging people to post their images using the editable scalable vector graphics (.SVG) format.  This has been widely accepted among the Wikipedia community, as it has led to the production of high quality diagramming that can be readily translated, eg this rather beautiful map of the Scottish island of Islay, originally produced by an French-speaking amateur cartographer.

But the biggest stumbling block, as I see it, is video.

Filming is a complex, time-consuming activity that needs dedicated, trained personnel.  Editing is a complex, time-consuming activity that needs dedicated, trained personnel.

The Open University has the personnel and the resources, and they have released various video resources under a Creative Commons attribution - non-commercial - sharealike (CC-BY-NC-SA) license, explicitly giving users permission to adapt and remix the content, including creating translations into other languages... but how can you translate a video when the audio has already been mixed down?

Consider that you often have the "live" background sound from the scene (footsteps, wind, birdsong etc), and then a piece of music played over the top, and finally a disembodied voice speaking over the top of that (known as voiceover, or VO).  To make a decent translation of a video, you need these tracks separately, so that you can replace the VO alone, or to allow "ducking" of on-camera interviews without losing any continuing music (ducking is when you turn down the volume on one track to allow someone to speak over it, as used in most news and documentary programs when there is a foreign speaker on the screen).

But the Open University provides only a web-quality video with premixed sound, so I couldn't, for example, do a simple translation of their digital film school videos to Scottish Gaelic (something that would be quite useful to people interested in taking part in the annual short film competition FilmG).  I could ask, I suppose, but I don't even know if they would still have the source files.

Besides, one of the most overlooked senses of the word "open" is the idea of being "out in the open".  Materials are more useful if they're immediately available, so that someone can just get the notion to do something and do it.  If it takes a lot of effort, and there's no guarantee you're going to get what you really want, in the end, it's easier just to cobble together something for yourself, something that's unlikely to see any reuse....

29 March 2013

OERs: moving towards further reusability

I'm pretty skeptical about OERs (open education resources) as I've said before.  A lot of the talk on the H817 blog aggregator is about how things are too tightly coupled – you can't break apart the courses as you'd like.

To have any real evidence of any substantial OER use in the real world, we'd need to see the same thing appear in two places... and it just so happens that I have seen the same thing occur in two places.  Take this picture:

Last year I was studying Gaelic full-time, and for a bit of variety I took anatomy and physiology as an outside course.  It was all online, and there were a lot of pictures of the same style as the above, and every time I failed to understand something in the course notes, I turned to Wikipedia for guidance and more often than not found identical pictures to the ones I was seeing in my course.  The picture above was taken from the Wikimedia Commons site, where it is free for any use, commercial or otherwise.

But more interestingly, it originated from a US federal government scheme, and all works of the federal government are property of the US people, meaning that effectively they're in the public domain as soon as they're published.

Now, the original purpose of these images was to support a basic module entitled Anatomy and Physiology on the US National Cancer Institute training site, SEER.  As I've still got an archive of my course notes on an external hard drive, I decided to see whether the course organisers had just gone to Wikipedia, or if they'd gone straight to the source.  It turns out they'd just gone to Wikipedia, and created a lot of unnecessary work for themselves in the process.  At first glance, the SEER material looks far better written than the actual course materials, in that it is less disjointed and easier to understand.  There is far more consistency in the look of the various images, whereas the course I took is a hodge-podge of widely varying drawing styles.

So there is clearly some reuse going on, but it really only seems to be starting at the level of images.

This, of course, is where it makes most sense: it's the "media" part of any course that is the hardest and most expensive to produce, so it seems only right that this is the place to begin.

Perhaps, then, the most suitable approach to improving uptake of reusable materials is to start with individual media resources, then build bundles of media resources, only once we have these bundles encourage teachers to start building text around them.

The problem with current efforts is that the text is added in too soon.  As soon as we start writing a text, we are making decisions about what to include and what to exclude from the activity/lesson/whatever.  Once we've made those decisions, we unconsciously blind ourselves to the gaps in the media set – if we don't need it for our lesson, we don't see it as required to complete the set, and the media set remains conceptually linked to our lesson.

For many types of media, no-one but the original artist/producer can mimic the style of the set.  Say one person records 101 anatomical terms so that learners can hear the pronunciation, and includes renal artery but misses renal vein.  The next guy who wants to use the set either has to adjust his lesson to suit, or record the word, but it will be in a different voice, so will be very noticeable.

27 March 2013

Suitability of MOOCs - H817 Activity 12

The OU free MOOC Open Education set the following question as activity 12:
Before we examine MOOCs in more detail, briefly consider if the MOOC approach could be adopted in your own area of education or training. Post your thoughts in your blog and then read and comment on your peers’ postings.
Now, just which field should I address?  Computer science or language learning?  How about both?

And for now, I'll restrict myself to the type of MOOC proposed by Cormier, Siemens etc, the "connectivist" MOOC.

So I'll answer "yes" and "yes" and "no" and "no".

One of the bits of material supporting this activity was a video interview with the aforementioned Mr.s Cormier and Siemens.

What really jumped out at me was that little after a minute into it, George Siemens basically says that the system emerged from how they were running online conferences.  Sound familiar?  Well, a few weeks ago I came to the conclusion that the MOOC had far more in common with a conference than a "course".

So it's utterly trivial to ask whether the MOOC has a place in any given field: if there are conferences in that field, a conference-type MOOC can work.

So that's "yes" and "yes".  Now onto "no" and "no".

I'll start with a quote from Isaac Asimov that I picked up from somewhere in the last week while working through blog posts on MOOCs:
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'
This could have been written for Web 2.0.  (No further explanation needed.)

But in the MOOC setting, it's particularly salient.  The whole idea of connectivism is to learn from each other... but we're not experts.  Everything I've read or heard from Cormier or Siemens to date seems to mention but quickly gloss over the fact that their MOOCs have focused on educational technology, a field with many informed practitioners, but no confirmed experts.  In fact, on of the papers mentioned in the disastrous Fundamentals of Online Education Coursera module described online education as being "at the buzzword stage", a thin euphemism for the fact that it's all opinion and no "knowledge".  And that's the space that conferences have always occupied: the point where we're sitting on the boundaries of the state of the art, where informed practitioners of roughly equal knowledge try to contemplate and push those boundaries.

But when there is an expert, why should we rely on the knowledge of peers, who may in fact turn out to be wrong?

Nowhere can this be more clear-cut than in the computer field (or at least "the discrete mathematics field", of which CS is a subset).

At the level of programming, there can be no subjective discussion about the best way of carrying out a given operation, because the methods can be empirically measured.  We can measure execution time, we can measure memory constraints, we can measure accuracy of results.  We get a definite right and wrong answer.  Yes, we can devise collaborative experiments where we pool our resources and share our data to find out what those right and wrong answers are, and in computer science courses we often do, but that serves not to teach the answer, but to teach the process of evaluating the efficiency of an algorithm or piece of software.

We do not generate more knowledge of how the computer works by discussing, only of how we work with it.

So there's my first "no", but this is not really specific to computer science, because in any undergraduate field, you teach/learn mostly the stable, established knowledge of the field.  Very little in an undergraduate syllabus is really open to much subjectivity in terms of knowledge, and in arts degrees, the subjectivity is restricted pretty much to the application of established knowledge.

Everyone discussing MOOCs at the moment seems to be talking about "HE" (higher education -- ie. universities) and not acknowledging that fundamental split between undergrad and postgrad.

So I've stated that no undergrad stuff can follow a connectivist approach, is it still worth saying anything about language specifically?

I think so.

Because language learning, more than any other field of education, can be scuppered by overenthusiastic learners -- the biggest obstacle in any language course is the presence of learners: how can I learn a language by hanging around with a bunch of people who don't speak the language?  And yet, for most of us these courses are vital if we are ever to learn a language.

And I myself have benefited greatly from informal networks of learners offering mutual support, so why not a MOOC?  Because the informal networks I have benefited from are of vastly different levels, so there's always been someone with some level of "expertise" above you.   But once you formalise into a "course", you're suddenly encouraging a group without that differentiation; a group of roughly equivalent level.  An overly confident error pushed by one participant can become part of the group's ideolect -- a mythological rule that through the application of collective ignorance crowds out the genuine rule.  Without sufficient expert oversight, how is this ever to be corrected?

A language MOOC would most likely be of far less use than either traditional classes or existing informal methods....

# I talk to the MOOCs, but they don't listen to me...

When I was studying languages with the OU, I found it very difficult to motivate myself to do most of the task.  These tasks I would happily do in a classroom, but on my own, I couldn't be bothered.

What was the difference?  Two things: one, in the classroom, if you don't do the task, you just sit there waiting for the others to finish -- you don't actually get the time back; two, normally your work will be examined by someone else -- either the teacher or a classmate, and if someone reads or hears your work, it has a purpose.  Even if only half of your classwork is ever read or heard, it at least provides some kind of motivation.

But when the book I was reading on my told me to write 200 words on my opinion of the treatment of minority languages in Spain, I knew I could be doing something else with my time, and I couldn't be bothered sitting down and writing something no-one else would ever read.

MOOCs, they would have us believe, address this, by making sure you have peers available at all times to read and comment.  Sadly, there's no guarantees, with some postings to group forums getting lots of views and/or comments, and some getting none at all.  The act of writing becomes an act of uncertainty -- it's like talking to the darkness without knowing whether or not there's actually anyone there.

I don't know about you, but this doesn't really motivate me to write much.  The latest task description:
Before we examine MOOCs in more detail, briefly consider if the MOOC approach could be adopted in your own area of education or training. Post your thoughts in your blog and then read and comment on your peers’ postings.
Well... who am I writing it to?  Who's going to read it?  Is anyone actually going to see it before it rolls off the bottom of the monolithic, uncategorised course blog aggregator?

Looking at the writing style of many of my peers, I'm not the only one with these doubts.  More than a few of the blog posts barely classify as prose, instead being little more than the writer's personal lecture notes.

This creates something of a death-spiral.  Because some of the blog posts don't lend themselves to reading, people don't read them, and don't comment on them.  This discourages them from viewing the blog aggregator, which means they don't see and don't comment on the genuinely readable posts, leading authors to become despondent about the lack of views, leading them to write without the expectation of gaining a readership, which leads to them not putting the effort in to make their posts readable, so people don't read them....

And yet, when we eventually tire of this and give up, the guys behind the MOOC don't view it as a pedagogical failure -- they shrug their shoulders and talk about learning choice and learner independence, and say that by leaving the course we're exercising those characteristics they want most to instill in us.

But I don't take courses to learn learner independence.  I take courses to get expert guidance to aid me in the acquisition of new domain knowledge, because while I can operate adequately as an independent learner, expert guidance gets me there quicker.

24 March 2013

Evaluating Open Education Resources (H817)

I'm getting rapidly disillusioned with the Open University's MOOC/non-MOOC Open Education.  After kicking off with a course "reading" that was a 77 slide PowerPoint file with no speaker notes, in week 2 they set a long reading from a decade ago, on a topic called "Learning Objects".  Now, it's not the length of the post in itself that bothers me, and the age is not a problem as this notion was a significant stepping stone to the open education systems of today... what winds me up is that after the link to the article, there was a little button marked "reveal" comment.  After the link.  So you would assume, wouldn't you, that it was to be read after reading the article... which is what I did.  Here is the content of the hidden comment in full:
Note: Downes goes into detail on many aspects that are not necessary for this course. You do not need to read the article in detail – your aim is to gain an understanding of what learning objects were and why they were seen as important.
... and you'll see why I was unhappy.  It's utterly sloppy design to leave you reading the whole thing before telling you not to!

This week's activities then follow on with one of the most spectacularly vague tasks ever, and judging by the stuff coming up on the course blog aggregator, I'm not the only person who thinks so.  Our task is to look at several repositories of "open education resources" (OERs) and evaluate the suitability of the material presented for assembling a course on "digital skills".

I'm presuming that they've chosen the task title "digital skills" to allow it to be an open task, but they've taken the original MOOC philosophy to its erroneous ultimate conclusion.  The philosophy of MOOCs (as embodied in change.ca) is the idea of learner independence, and the notion that learners work better when they can choose what to work towards, but yet unrestricted choice has been shown to be absolutely crippling, because with open choice comes indecision.  (If you're interested in this idea, check out Barry Schwartz's TED talk The Paradox of Choice.)

Consider also that many of the great artists imposed limits on themselves, such as Pablo Picasso's famous "blue period" (not that I personally rate Picasso's work much), in order to stimulate extra creativity.

But here I am with an excruciatingly vague task description, and there's nothing in the task to force me to narrow down and focus on a particular aspect of the large potential space of meaning before I am expected to wade through gigabytes of texts and videos looking for things that are specifically relevant or useful.

And the course to date hasn't given us any real guidance on how to evaluate the usefulness and applicability of the material anyway.  And we're back to this idea that there's no rules, and that individual creativity and "engagement" with material will show us the way, throwing out all the hard-learned lessons in pedagogy, instructional design and other closely related fields.

It is far easier to do a complex task by following a defined process than to try to intuit the process by attempting to complete the task.  Early guidance can develop good patterns of activity that are internalised over time and become automatic.

17 March 2013

h817 activity 3

The OU's MOOC Open education asked us for our first task to create a visual representation of some of the themes in open and online learning.

My submission is this picture, which I call "data density".

What does it represent?

Quite simply, it's an edited screengrab of the webpage on which the task was set.

I blanked out everything that was a repeated element, leaving only items unique to this page — specifically a copy of the unit number and name in fairly small type.  Everything else — everything else — was part of the Moodle template and is repeated on every single page of the course.  You land on a page, and you see no new content until you scroll down.  Several times I've found myself thinking I'd not gone to the right page.

This breaks a fundamental law of web design that has been known and understood for over 15 years: if you want to keep someone's attention, show them something new on the first page.

The problem in the OU's case is exacerbated by being on an environment within an environment within an environment.

At the core, we are in the course environment, and we're bundled up with info on the course and course navigation tools.  Then we're in the OpenLearn environment, and bundled up with all the cruft for navigating to other parts of OpenLearn.  Finally, OpenLearn sits within the wider OU environment, so we have that cluttering up the screen as well.

The OU's not the only place to do this.  One of my current favourite blogs on online education also suffers from having a title and banner image so big that every page looks identical until you scroll down.  (I'm not going to name the blog, but I hope she's reading!)

So here's the thing: all this theoretical talk about theoretical pedagogy is all well and good, but until the teachers are capable of using the tools, online education is going to be pretty rubbish.

Edit: and before anyone says it, yes, I know you can click "hide summary" on the OpenLearn site to bring some more relevant information onto the front page, but why should I have to?  I'm enrolled on the course, and the system knows this — it should automatically present me with the information I need rather than the sales blurb.  If I subscribe to a website, it usually stops pestering me with "the benefits of subscription" etc!

Slideshare? Oh for pity's sake, OU....

There's a high chance I won't be finishing the Open Education course after all.  I may just have started, but first impressions last.

Particularly when the first impression is delivered by Slideshare.

PowerPoint: the bane of students and employees everywhere.
Death by PowerPoint: the feeling of lethargy induced by an hour of listening to some middle manager drone on about "as you can see on the slide..."

The first prescribed reading is an article from the Open University's Journal of Interactive Media in Education, an open access journal I think I'll probably be reading a lot in the near future.  (I hadn't heard of it before.)  Slideshare was listed as a useful tool for open educational resources (OERs).

The next reading was a PowerPoint slide deck.  On Slideshare.

Nononononono.  Don't do this to me.

OU, when we first met, I thought we had something special, but you just keep finding new ways to hurt me.

Setting aside arguments about the effectiveness of PowerPoint (I personally agree with Edward Tufte -- I never liked it before I read his essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint and he helped me understand why), the distribution of slides has become a universal of the last decade, and it has become an absolute obstruction to communication rather than a facilitator.

One of the most criminally underused features of PowerPoint is the notes page -- most people don't know it exists.  PowerPoint lets you create a set of speaker notes with the slide at the top, and detailed notes below.  It's a very simple mechanism, but when used correctly, it's of inestimable value.  In a former life, I was tasked with organising various meetings and assembling PowerPoint slidedecks.  Most of these were just compilations of slides submitted by managers from across the organisation... and none of them included any speaker notes.  This was awkward, as quite often I had to pass these slide decks on to one of the local management team to deliver.

Have you ever been in a presentation where the presenter was reading the slides for the first time as he delivered his presentation?  I have, and far more than once, I'm sad to say.  In the corporate world, it comes across as a sign of disdain and disrespect for the workers.  Why am I sitting here listening to you when you haven't taken the time to prepare what you're going to say?  If you can't tell me what the figures actually mean, why did you bother coming?  Why not just put it in an email and stop wasting everybody's time?

The notes page -- the notes page can fix that.  I never wrote a professional presentation without extensive notes, so that someone else could pick it up and present it.

I knew the most important truth about PowerPoint: the slides never tell the full story, and a person with only the slides normally doesn't even understand everything included in the slides.  In short, without the notes, the presenter is even less useful than the slides themselves.

Now, back to Slideshare.

I have looked at Slideshare many times, but I've never seen any slide deck through to the end, because there's a heck of a lot missing.  Without the speaker, the story simply doesn't flow; all we have is a disjointed series of statements and assertions, often in confusingly abbreviated English.

and Slideshare does not show the notes page.  To me, that's almost criminal.  The one thing that can help the reader make sense of a slide deck, and it's just not there.  It may be in the PowerPoint file that you can download... or it may not be.  Probably not.

(I did in fact download the set reading to see, and sure enough, there wasn't a single note added for any of the 74 slides included.)

And that's the thing.  By hiding the notes page from us unless we specifically ask for it, PowerPoint encourages people to write without making notes.  If Slideshare exposed the notes page, maybe people would start making a point of using it, and maybe slide decks would be useful to someone other than the original author.  Until then, they're useless to everyone else.

Open University online course

I'm just starting on the free course Open Education by the Open University.  I've got a lot of time for the OU in general, although my experience as a student led me to wonder whether their move to online was going to destroy everything they'd created as they moved on-line in an apparently poorly-planned move to cut costs.

I spent several years studying languages with them, and the physical books that I had appreciated so much at the start were gradually placed with half-hearted web-page-ised versions that were less flexible and less useful, and the face-to-face tutorials replaced with voice-only virtual classrooms.

Have you ever tried to speak a foreign language without any visual contact?  It's bloody hard, and there's no way round it.  More often than not, I disconnected from my tutorials out of sheer stress and terror, and I'm not usually one to shy away from another language -- I'm a native English speaker, and I've learned Spanish, Gaelic and French to near-fluency, as well as Catalan, Italian and Corsican to a passable conversational level, and a few words of several other languages besides.

I'm approaching this course with equal amounts of optimism and skepticism, because I know the OU do, on some level, know what they're talking about, but I simultaneously fear that they've bought into their own hype and may be starting to believe ideologically in decisions that were originally made for logistical reasons....

Zen and teaching

One of the core principles of zen is that of "mindfulness" - be aware of your actions and your surroundings, and in the classroom it's all too easy not to be.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about why I don't think groupwork really works in most circumstances, focused on an experience I'd had shortly before as a student in a language class.  My conclusion was that the big problem was that the class had been too task focused, and that the task was completed (the answers written down on the piece of paper), so everyone was happy... except of course the less capable students who were still sitting in silent confusion.

But starting up after the Christmas holidays, I've found myself slipping into a task-focused mindset, almost viewing the class group as a unit.  "I have received the answers from the class, so the lesson was successful."  But one of my classes started before the others, so I gave them an assessed task last week, and when I marked the sheets, I could see I'd let the lower achieving students hide their weaknesses, which I so often criticise other teachers of doing.

The truth is that it's very, very hard to monitor everyone in the class, so it's helpful for me to go back occasionally and look at criticisms I've made of other teachers.  Not to forgive them on the grounds that I make the same mistakes, but to forgive myself before pushing myself to do better.  And this semester offers me a very good opportunity to do better, as I have one less class a week, and two of my biggest class groups have finished, to be replaced with two other groups half their size.

I won't beat myself up over making the same mistakes as other teachers, but I'll work to eliminate those faults.