Debunking.

While I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, my first-day-back brain has been mulling over a few things I’d like on a mental to-do list for this year.  The first of these comes on the back of reading this article, which strengthened my suspicion that most people operate under some degree of misconception about things (myself included). The following are three bugbears of mine which I would dearly love to begin debunking this year:

eBooks

This is a contentious one, because I know that there is a certain experience in a paper book that involves all senses in a way that eBooks do not, and it is something I still enjoy. However, if, as in the above article, you are arguing that paper books are better because of their permanence or value, think again. I suspect that the idea that computer files are somehow transient or vulnerable harks back to the pre-internet no-backup days when they effectively were. These days? I suppose it depends on how you manage your data, but generally I feel digital content has a leg up on physical in terms of permanence. I can think of any number of ways in which I can quickly and irreversibly destroy a paper book – in my case, it tends to involve unfortunate encounters with water. I can also imagine, from experience, any number of scenarios involving a required book not being in the same location as myself. Yet my eBooks are synced via various services – my iPad (current reader of choice) could be dropped in the ocean, set on fire or run over by a bus, my house could burn down and I could be on the other side of the world, and I would still have access to every single one of my eBooks. In a hundred years when my paper books are faded and unreadably fragile, my eBooks will have emerged in (presumably) perfect copy via whatever legacy file conversion system is in place then. I know which gets my vote for permanence. And value? Perhaps there is an argument for cheap secondhand texts, but without exception every eBook that I have purchased has been vastly cheaper than the equivalent paper copy in my local bookshop. The overheads for digital text are so low that it seems madness to suggest paper books are somehow better value. The only other thing I will say on eBooks for now is that I just don’t get how anyone who has to go anywhere to do anything with books can’t be swayed by the immense convenience of having multiple texts on one tiny device.

The Cloud

Time and time again I talk to people who are wary of the cloud – who feel the need to either have a physical paper copy of something or a stand-alone file on their own computer for their data to feel ‘secure’. To me, this is the same idea as stuffing all your money into a mattress rather than keeping it in the bank. We all adapted to digital currency years ago – I don’t understand the resistance to cloud-based data. What is more secure – your own computer, with one point of failure, and perhaps a backup on an external hard drive or server in roughly the same location, or a large multi-site cloud service with the ability to run yottabites of storage with triple redundancy and insurance? One power surge, fire, flood or theft at your home/office and it’s all over, red rover in the first instance. I know there’s a lot of scare-mongering that goes on re: hacking and identity theft, but two things come to mind: your own computer is just as vulnerable; and one of my favourite authors’ catchcries – ‘distinguish possible from likely’. For me, the benefits (of insane convenience and security) outweigh the risks every time. I know where I’m putting my data.

Digital natives/immigrants

By this I don’t mean weighing in on the argument that digital natives theory is a load of crap – it’s been done and those of you reading are likely well-versed in the arguments and are aware of my views. What I’m referring to is the somewhat largely held belief that mature-age students are somehow fundamentally different to fresh-out-of-school students. I often hear lecturers saying ‘Well, yes, I know we’re supposed to be using technology but I only have mature-age students and they’re not interested in all that’. Yes, and before they came to uni they probably didn’t use the APA style guide, read textbooks or write critical analyses either. Basing course design on the predicted tool preferences of a student demographic is madness. Do we ask ourselves if students like using Bunsen burners before engaging in lab work? Do we ask if students prefer to read magazines before assigning textbooks? We need to stop assigning ‘special other’ categories to students, and we need to stop doing it for tools as well.

That’s my list for today. Feel free to weigh in with your own misconception bugbears in the comments.

Workshopping the workshop

It’s come to my attention that the way I deliver face to face development workshops is broken. Not badly; I’ve never been the type to do the stand-and-deliver here-is-my-wisdom-in-a-powerpoint type of workshop that you often see (everything I do is hands-on with lots of discussion, and well-reviewed), but I still feel like there’s quite a gap between the style of education I’m promoting and the actual delivery mode of workshops. However, I’m also very aware of the fact that there is a certain style of workshop that most academics expect and are comfortable with (there is a reason the aforementioned style of development is commonplace). My colleague and I are about to start drafting the workshop program next year, and my intention is to treat it as a small-scale project. I’d like to get to a stage where I think the content and delivery structure of our workshops is more authentic. I’ve outlined some thoughts on online training in a previous post, but face-to-face training is something I’ve yet to really solidify ideas on.

So my question for you is – if you could design your ‘ideal’ CPD workshop to attend, what features would you be looking for? What’s defined the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ PD you’ve been to? If you’re someone who delivers training, how do you cut the balance between expectations and intentions?

And my final question – is the workshop even the best model? Or are we barking up the wrong tree entirely?

ULT Futures Colloquium 2010

Here’s my presentation from the colloquium, for those who are interested to view/comment.

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Prezi has been a bit flaky with displaying the embed on this one, so if it’s not showing for you, use this link:

Navigating 21st Century Education: A Practical Integration Strategy for Interactive and Collaborative Learning

Are we having fun yet?

On my mind lately has been the idea of student engagement and improved teaching quality. Most teachers and ed devs will agree that lecture-based, teacher-driven teaching with essay- and test-based summative assessment needs to change. Student-centred, collaborative and interactive learning design with formative and dynamic assessment models is coming into focus. Since this shift is based on a better learning experience for students, one would assume we’re already preaching to the converted – that students recognise that this shift in teaching is more effective and more closely meets their needs as learners. I’m yet to be convinced this is the case, though.

As mentioned in a previous post, I was surprised to learn that, when asked, many students will report that lecture notes, Powerpoint slides and lecture podcasts are effective aspects of their study. I know and you know that this experience could be better, but do the students? Traditional tertiary teaching methods result in success for many, in that their desired outcome of a degree is achieved. To most, this is what tertiary education looks like. I’m curious, though, how many students are working through a course, simply feeling as though they are text-regurgitating essay-writing machines ticking boxes, but aren’t aware that it doesn’t have to be like this? That it is possible to enjoy and be enthusiastic about learning? Many students, even at postgraduate level, lack the knowledge of educational theory and research and the metacognitive skills to be able to identify the cause of frustration and potential solutions based on awareness of their needs as a learner.

What I’m getting at is that I suspect that there are large numbers of students who aren’t necessarily aware that they could potentially be experiencing a much more engaging form of education. If we are advocating a change in teachers’ perceptions of what effective learning is but are not changing students’ perceptions, are we able to continue to attract these students to our courses? What kind of strategies do we need to adopt to begin to shift students’ perceptions?

A case of you don’t know what you don’t know?

One of my current research projects involves assisting lecturers to make small and practical changes to the way they teach and the tools they use to teach, particularly to distance ed students. In a nutshell, the lecturers in the trial units are changing a percentage of their assessment to focus on student-generated, collaborative learning using an easily-managed local WordPressMU installation. None of the lecturers have previously taught using social media or any kind of interactive or collaborative task in their (distance ed) teaching, and none of the students have previously experienced the use of these in their degree.

What is most interesting for me coming out of the student survey data is the perception of what effective and engaging learning is. One of the survey questions asks students to identify tools and aspects of distance learning that they find engaging and effective – and nearly every student has answered lecture notes, lecture podcasts and Powerpoint slides. Now, I’ll admit I initially cringed at this. Education research has been advocating a move away from this kind of push delivery for years now. And personally, as a learner, these three things are the most tedious, boring, disengaging features of distance learning. I realise that my level of self-directedness is probably not the norm in adult learners, but I also did not expect to get a near 100% response rate in favour of old-school, content-push, read-this-then-write-an-essay delivery.

But.

I’m reluctant to tie concepts to a demographic, but nearly all respondents are in the 36-50 age bracket. They’re comfortable with this style of learning. Why fix what ain’t broke? Many also said they hated groupwork, thought social media was a waste of time and so on. I was getting concerned that those who keep telling me that this ‘new kind of teaching’ isn’t relevant to our demographic of external students might have a point. Until I read on.

Except for a couple of (not unexpected) respondents who put it in the ‘too hard’ basket, almost all the students who initially noted they preferred to learn via lecture notes and Powerpoints and who were unconvinced of the value of social media indicated that they were finding the collaborative blog task really valuable and engaging, significantly more so than they had expected. Which leads me to wonder – is it simply a case of we don’t know what we don’t know? I have long thought that adult learners have the same needs as school students when it comes to in-depth, engaging and valuable study, yet feedback from adult students often indicates otherwise. I have also long suspected that educators often confuse engagement with outcomes – what I didn’t realise is that maybe students do this too. So what I’m asking now is – is there a better experience distance students could be having, that they might not be aware of?

Just because it ain’t broke doesn’t mean we can’t do it better.

Academics, internet and the elephant in the room

Below is a discussion post I wrote in response to Larry Cuban’s book, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, a set reading and task for one of my Master’s units. Now, I am probably not saying anything here that most of you don’t already know, but then, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not in my target demographic :). I’m posting it here for interests’ sake, for anyone who would like to contribute to the discussion.

On more serious matters, there are two points I’ll raise, one on the big fat elephant in the room, the other on the divide between computers and the internet. Both are on the back of Cuban’s ‘unexpected’ findings, and he does mention some of what I’m about to cover.

The thing I find interesting when we talk about the use of computers in education is that we are not actually talking about the use of computers at all. What we aren’t saying is that we are in fact talking about transforming pedagogy. Cuban’s research paints a fairly accurate portrait of the use of computers in education, in that those who are using computers are largely integrating them into existing teaching strategies. But ‘computer use’ is not really what we’re getting at. If we achieved 100% usage of computers in education by teachers and students (which is quickly becoming realistic), I think most of us would be left asking ‘what did we really gain from that?’. What we are really looking for is a ‘revolution’ in education, an overhaul of pedagogy. The current practice of giving computers to everyone (KRudd’s DER epitomises Cuban’s ‘oversold’) is ignoring the elephant in the room.

The next issue is what got the elephant there in the first place. There is a very fundamental distinction between ‘computers’ and ‘the internet’ that often isn’t addressed. Computers are designed to make tasks easier and more efficient. That has been the case for a good 40 years now. What computers haven’t done is fundamentally change society. Think about what computers allow you to do – write, create media, play games, organisational tasks. They are remarkably efficient (and often very sophisticated) in how they do this, but there is nothing on that list that couldn’t be done in a different format a hundred years ago. Use of computers in schools largely echoes this – old tasks in newer, more efficient, more sophisticated ways. What has fundamentally changed things, though, is the internet. Internet access is the one thing that computers enable that has really changed the way people think and interact. It has changed culture. And that’s what makes people so uncomfortable. It’s easy to put computers in schools, and have kids make Powerpoints or podcasts or whatever. It’s not challenging to anyone’s beliefs on teaching and pedagogy. What’s hard, what’s challenging, is the shift away from teacher-driven, information-based instruction that the internet fosters. And schools aren’t ready for this – changing the way teachers teach is currently too daunting. Those teachers who do embrace change are self-selecting. You only need to look at the DET’s internet filtering policies to know this is the case – anything information-based is allowed. Anything that fosters collaborative, student-generated learning (social media etc etc) is blocked.

The two most effective things schools could do to turn Cuban’s findings around, produce ‘worthy outcomes’ and really make computers a worthwhile investment? Unblock the internet and design an effective development structure that supports pedagogical reform.