Tuesday, July 28, 2015

#Google+Pivot - what went wrong?

Google+ Google introduced yet another social network that no-one (except Google) really needed.

But Google+ was too complicated rather than following the simple design that won Google its prominence.

Google forgot how to be Google.

Sic transit gloria mundi.


Open education: the need for a critical approach

Open access One agrees with the following:
"Crucially, the field has lacked coherent definitions of ‘open’, and too often tended towards optimism, advocacy, and conviction, rather than a critical understanding of what openness might mean for education. Moreover, it is the vagaries of the term itself that have allowed it to be attached to other ideas so readily: to notions of self-directed learning and cohesive community interaction; and to technology and the presumed capacities of the digital networks that enable educational activity to take place. In these ways, ‘open’ has too often accounted for the assumed ease with which educational hierarchies can be horizontalised, and economic and geographic barriers can be dissolved. But more than this, openness has too often assumed that institutional structures, financial constraints, and distance are the only issues preventing the instinctive and effortless uptake of self-directed learning. It is precisely in this way that an uncritical championing of openness fails to adequately analyse educational closures.

Many approaches to open education have been guided by the assumption that students fall into a universal category of rational, self-directing, and highly motivated individuals. Much less common is the acknowledgement that openness reconfigures or maintains particular notions of learning, teaching, and human being; that it is involved in the production of our contemporary understanding of ourselves as educated and educating beings. Part of the appeal of openness has derived from its association with a broader restructuring of education around the idea of the ‘learner’. This ‘learnification’ (Biesta 2010) has tended to assume autonomous students, whose independent activity requires educational opportunity with instantly and universally accessible material, anytime admittance, and teachers who merely ‘facilitate’ the process. The assumption is that ‘we’ are naturally open, and for all this time it has been the institution that has disciplined us into being closed. However, this idea of openness relies too heavily on the logic of self-direction, and fails to engage with the de-emphasis of teacher contact, problematic forms of student isolation, the appropriation of academic labour, and a neglect of the social and political dimensions of an education that surfaces in globalised classrooms. Such openness is only a solution for the imagined autonomous subject, and is only imaginable where education is divorced from the complexities of culture, sociality, and the power of the political. Furthermore, the restructuring of the role of the teacher and the implicit de-professionalisation of teaching is overlooked in this drive for openness. The open education movement can at times seem worryingly amenable to forces of neoliberalism within the university."

Open education: the need for a critical approach. (2015) Learning, Media and Technology 40(3) doi: 10.1080/17439884.2015.1065272

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Returning to the problem of information literacy

Information literacy Since I started running "key skills" modules umptynine years ago, delivery of information literacy skills has been a constant concern. Leaving aside arcane discussions of what information literacy actually is, the realities of very large student numbers often forced me down the MCQ route, both because "If it's not (summatively) assessed it doesn't exist" and because of the impossible logistics of more appropriate alternatives.

Returning this week once again to the problem of information literacy delivery for the coming year, I turned to the research literature. The last time I did that I found it unhelpful because publications were dominated by arcane (unkindly: airy-fairy) discussion of the nature of academic literacies. This time around, by focusing my searches onto "information literacy" AND "science" (a spot of Boolean karma there), I came up with a more satisfactory outcome. Sifting of the literature in this restricted area now gives a more clear cut consensus on the best and possibly only solution: a pragmatic approach involving learning by doing - an authentic assessment apprenticeship model. Which unfortunately causes rather than solves a problem.

Numbers - that's the problem. If I had the luxury of delivering this content for half a dozen students on a single degree course, I'd have them write essays recursively until I knew they'd got it. Not viable with 400 students. So my alternative is ... peer assessment, either using the Blackboard Self and Peer Assessment tool or the Turnitin PeerMark system (comments on these welcome please). Which is fine, except it leads me into a discussion about formative versus summative assessment. Have students peer assess and only force completion by completion, or going down the hairy (and possibly unacceptable) route of having students summatively peer assess?

Information literacy assignment
1000 word Microsoft Word report on assigned topic:
  1. List and justify which keywords you used for your search (2 marks)
  2. List and justify which synonyms you used for your search (2 marks)
  3. List and justify which wildcards you used for your search (2 marks)
  4. List and justify which Boolean operators you used for your search (2 marks)
  5. Display search results (screenshots) from each of the following databases: PubMed, Google Scholar, WoK. (3 marks)
  6. Annotated Bibliography - list your choice of the 10 most relevant and important papers for your assigned topic - explaining why you chose each one. (10 marks)

I would really welcome your comments and insight on this.

Thompson, L, and Blankinship, L.A. (2015). Teaching Information Literacy Skills to Sophomore-Level Biology Majors. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 16(1): 29. doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.818

Friday, July 17, 2015

So remind me again, what is the purpose of a university education?

Defensive position There's an interesting new paper in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education by Royce Sadler touching on ideas of authentic assessment, from which I have cheekily abstracted and editorialised what I consider to be the most important bits. Food for thought.

Three in-course assessment reforms to improve higher education learning outcomes. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 17 Jul 2015 doi: 10.1080/02602938.2015.1064858

Reform 1: Assessment task design and specifications - ffs, let's bin "the essay".
"Creating demanding assessment tasks from scratch is hard work if the tasks are to tap into higher order operations on ideas and information. ... Potential sources also include real-life problems in the relevant field."

Reform 2: Grading at the ‘Pass’ level - "markers constantly need to make sound judgments about the quality of work in order to infer underlying competence or capability. Not always easy with real-life problems."

Reform 3: Redesigning course assessment plans
"Accumulation of marks - The common arguments for accumulation are essentially instrumentalist. The purpose is not so much to help learners attain adequate levels of complex knowledge and skills by the end of a course, as to keep them working and provide multiple opportunities for feedback. ... However, notwithstanding its superficial appeal, accumulation actually diverts attention from the goal of achieving a satisfactory level by course end.
Formative assessment - Given a set of course objectives, formative assessment is commonly viewed narrowly as giving students assessment tasks and then feedback so that they can improve. Despite all the effort typically invested in creating better and better feedback, it too often makes practically no difference ... the principal reason is that feedback is basically about telling students – the transmission model of teaching transposed into an assessment setting. The alternative is to offer students formative assessment opportunities that provide authentic evaluative experience of the type they need in order to become better able to recognise, monitor and control the quality of works they themselves are to produce."

Re-inventing end-of-course summative assessment - exam essays? Forget it.

Implications for students
Goal setting - are we locking them into league table mentality even before they graduate?
"Student sense of agency - students need to see and appreciate the purpose to be served, experience success in moving towards its attainment, and be motivated, with grit and determination, to follow through to completion." And not play point scoring games.

Inhibitors of change - well, we all know what they are.
"In recent decades, the focus for evaluating teaching quality has been heavily weighted towards inputs (student entry levels, participation rates, facilities, resources and support services) and a select group of outcomes (degree completions, employability, starting salaries and student satisfaction, experience or engagement). Conspicuously absent is anything to do with actual academic achievement in courses. This has allowed a number of sub-optimal assessment practices to become normalised into assessment cultures. One of the consequences is that too many students have been able to graduate without the capabilities expected of graduates, yet this is not necessarily apparent from their transcripts.
The focus in this article is on student outcomes rather than inputs, with particular emphasis on the higher order capabilities of students. Many students fail to master these, yet they gain credit in course after course and eventually graduate. Directly addressing the deficient aspects of assessment culture and practice could radically alter this state of affairs, but it would require a transformation in thinking and practice on the part of many academics. The ultimate aim is to ensure that all students accept a significant proportion of the responsibility for achieving adequate levels of higher order outcomes. Bluntly put, no student would be awarded a pass in a course without being able to demonstrate these levels. For some students, this would necessitate a major change in their priorities. For academics, both their assessment practices and the nature of the student–teacher relationship would change.
Undoubtedly, determination to pursue this end would have significant washback effects on teaching, learning, and course and programme objectives, but that is intended. The likelihood of success depends on finding a rational, ethical and affordable way to do it. This may require re-engineering some parts of the transition path, creating other parts from scratch, and reworking priorities, policies and practices to a considerable extent. In particular, it would entail rebalancing institutional resource allocations in order to cater for student cohorts that have become much more diversified. Except for aims geared narrowly to economic and employment considerations, this goal is broadly consistent with older and many recent statements of the real purposes of higher education."

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Online technology for teaching and learning - gains and losses

Small worlds This commentary describes recent developments in the use of online technologies, in particular social media and mobile devices, for teaching and learning and considers what has been gained and lost.

Online technology for teaching and learning - gains and losses. Alan Cann FEMS Microbiology Letters (16 June 2015), fnv099, doi: 10.1093/femsle/fnv099

Although Marc Prensky's 2001 description of "digital natives" (Prensky, 2001) - those who were "born digital" - is now largely disowned (including by Prensky himself), it has inevitably come to shape thinking about educational technology. It is undeniable that the Internet has changed most aspects of our lives in some way, yet there is scant evidence that the online world has fundamentally altered how we think or learn. Teenagers now hang out with friends on Facebook rather than in parks or on street corners, but the interactions are much the same as they ever were. In an introduction to a new F1000Research channel, Graham Scott writes:
"We assume that digital literacy and access are common to all who teach and communicate their science and to their audiences. We also assume that our digital communication is effective and that by using digital technologies learning experiences are enhanced. But are these reasonable assumptions to make?" (Scott, 2015)
The flipped teaching approach requires content delivery, whether text- or multimedia-based, to occur outside of the classroom and to replace traditional live lectures. Academic–student contact time is then used for interactive activities aimed at facilitating deeper conceptual understanding of the subject material (O'Flaherty & Phillips, 2015). Ideally, a successful flipped class approach improves student engagement, both within and outside the class. In reality, flipping is frequently a challenging task for students and academic staff alike. The potential for educational gains (and possible cost saving) are there, but support and persistence is likely to be needed to achieve success. Massive open online course (MOOC) style of flipped learning has received the most media attention over the past two years (Haggard et al, 2013). Thankfully, the initial hysteria around MOOCs revolutionizing education and sweeping universities away has now subsided. In its place have emerged more realistic thoughts about the impact of free online education. However, MOOCs have refocused attention onto open educational resources (OER), a potentially valuable area where content provision has ridden ahead of an underlying pedagogy (Knox, 2013). Valuable OER resources are out there - images on Flickr, videos on YouTube, explanations on Wikipedia. This article discusses social media and mobile technologies and considers their positive and negative aspects.

Social Media
Traditional media usually portray social media (computer systems that allow users to create and share information, ideas and content via online virtual communities and networks) as flat and monolithic in structure. In reality, nowhere has the complexity of the Internet and its influence on young people's lives been portrayed as well as by danah boyd in her recent book It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (boyd, 2014). Boyd reminds us that the hysteria surrounding the Internet is only the latest incarnation of the end of the world, and that Socrates warned of the dangers of the alphabet and writing, citing implications for memory and the ability to convey truth (sound familiar?). She is particularly eloquent on technological determinism and the Idea that the Internet is unique and cannot be compared with anything that went before it:
"Utopian and dystopian views assume that technologies possess intrinsic powers that affect all people in all situations the same way. ... These extreme rhetorics are equally unhelpful in understanding what actually happens when new technologies are broadly adopted. Reality is nuanced and messy, full of pros and cons. Living in a networked world is complicated."
Social media is, generally speaking, “free” to education providers because successful projects tend to hook into existing sites where student attention may already be focussed rather than trying to create artificial, closed, small scale networks (Bik & Goldstein, 2013; Maleko et al, 2013). This means that there are no infrastructure limitations (beyond the provision of adequate wifi connectivity) as social media access tends towards “bring your own device” (byod) models where students provide their own phones or tablets. On the other hand this means a variety of user experiences which must be taken into account when designing any activity. This apparent loss of control over students goes hand in hand with perceived institutional risk (reputation) in the public sphere. Although such risks are usually overstated, there is certainly a need to pay attention to professional development of students to minimize risk of career damage.
And yet real changes are occurring on the Internet as it becomes a mature medium which has discovered what is effective online, particularly in terms of monetization. Doors are closing around the Internet. Net neutrality is a serious concern - will we have one internet or many? The big players - Google, Facebook and Buzzfeed - have discovered that monetization requires building a lobster pot for online attention - if you send your students to Facebook will you ever get them back? However, if you're willing to take the risk, there is a lot of high quality microbiology information available via Facebook (Table 1).

Table 1. Microbiology pages on Facebook.
American Society for Microbiology
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)
FEMS (Federation of European Microbiological Societies)
Society for Applied Microbiology
Society for General Microbiology

The growing neoliberalization of the online world is about control, generating tension compared to the early blue sky days. This narrative runs parallel to other changes in education (Kahn, 2015). We now have the Internet as infrastructure, commoditized and packaged. How would your working week go if the Internet were not there on Monday morning? The economies of scale are attractive to the online giants and education providers alike - more users, more students. The online world works because of scale rather than depth. Billions of people use Facebook daily, but what do they use it for? Popular sites such as Buzzfeed (just Google that if it's not familiar to you) are notorious for dumbing down and the invention of the listicle, short-form writing that uses a list as its structure, fleshed out with enough copy to be published as an article: "10 things you should know about E. coli". But as boyd (2014) has warned us, any over simplistic view of the Internet is flawed. At the same time as becoming notorious for items such as "29 Cats That Forgot How To Cat", Buzzfeed has also invested heavily (US$50m) in longform journalism, including science journalism. Does it matter where people read about microbiology? (Ghorayshi, A. (2015) Mail-Order Viruses Are The New Antibiotics; Dan Vergano, D. (2015) Africa At Risk Of Ebola Flare-Up, WHO Leaders Say

Mobile technologies
For all the buzz around social media the really big impact of recent years has been from mobile technologies and information interfaces. The byod movement stresses reduced infrastructure costs, convenience and the potential for engagement with new forms of delivery. Set against this are the challenges presented by mobile technologies – an expectation of reduced response times or immediate responses, and the always on nature leading to reduced separation of work and private life, causing stress and anxiety for staff and students alike (Lepp et al, 2014).
Academic staff frequently feel that they lag far behind students in understanding and familiarity with mobile technologies, although the true picture is complex (Cochrane, 2014). Commercial organizations have adapted to the 24/7 mobile world much faster than academics. While it is unthinkable to someone of my generation that anyone would choose to read an academic paper on a mobile phone, that is a frequent occurrence in my experience. Although students push the boundaries of content delivery on mobile devices, the old formats do not work effectively on small screens. Longform text needs to be broken into small chunks and visual or audio content is frequently preferable to any text at all (Ekanayake & Wishart, 2014). However, mobile bandwidth is frequently limited (or expensive), and so video is not always a viable choice to replace text. Audio content shows much promise, for example for academic feedback, and there has been a resurgence of interest in podcasts, for example Vincent Racaniello's This Week In Virology ( Adapting to mobile technology requires considerable thought and planning - it's not simple to switch from text-dominated to multimedia content, which is one reason why academia has lagged behind in this area.

In an era where so much information is available from so may different sources, characterizing science education dichotomously as either “formal” or “informal” no longer makes sense (Falk et al, 2015). For all the rapid evolution of technology in recent years, academics have been slow to adapt and even slower to adopt the most effective formats and techniques (Shelton, 2014). However, the adoption of new technology has frequently had a negative effect in promoting over assessment! Even though constructive alignment of the interdependence of learning outcomes, teaching methods and assessment is widely accepted (Biggs, 1996), the availability of shiny new electronic gizmos sometimes overrides sense.
Yet the overall picture is not so bleak and there have been wins. YouTube is an example of this with its accidental invention of the perfect OER - ideal unit size, hosted by a trusted brand, cross platform availability (Grant, 2015). Millions of people are now receiving microbiology education via a plethora of informal channels. Once academia catches up with the altered technology landscape, the future looks bright for an educated public (Jandu, 2012).

Biggs, J. (1996) Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher education, 32(3): 347-364.
Bik, H.M., & Goldstein, M.C. (2013) An introduction to social media for scientists. PLoS Biology, 11(4), e1001535.
Boyd, D. (2014) It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300166435.
Cochrane, T.D. (2014) Critical success factors for transforming pedagogy with mobile Web 2.0. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(1): 65-82.
Ekanayake, S.Y., & Wishart, J. (2014) Mobile phone images and video in science teaching and learning. Learning, Media and Technology, 39(2): 229-249.
Falk, J.H., Dierking, L.D., Osborne, J., Wenger, M., Dawson, E., & Wong, B. (2015) Analyzing Science Education in the United Kingdom: Taking a System‐Wide Approach. Science Education, 99(1): 145-173.
Grant, W. (2015) Science communication on YouTube: Factors that affect channel and video popularity. Public Understanding of Science, 19 February 2015. doi: 10.1177/0963662515572068.
Haggard, S., Brown, S., Mills, R., Tait, A., Warburton, S., Lawton, W., & Angulo, T. (2013) The Maturing of the MOOC: literature review of massive open online courses and other forms of online distance learning. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, UK Government.
Jandu, N. (2012) Microbiology for the masses: teaching concepts and skills for a general audience. Trends in microbiology, 20(10): 459-460.
Kahn, P. (2015) Critical perspectives on methodology in pedagogic research. Teaching in Higher Education 20 (4): 442-454. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2015.1023286.
Knox, J. (2013) Five critiques of the open educational resources movement. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(8): 821-832.
Lepp, A., Barkley, J.E., & Karpinski, A.C. (2014) The relationship between cell phone use, academic performance, anxiety, and satisfaction with life in college students. Computers in Human Behavior, 31: 343-350.
Maleko, M., Nandi, D., Hamilton, M., D'Souza, D., & Harland, J. (2013) Facebook versus Blackboard for supporting the learning of programming in a fully online course: the changing face of computing education. In Learning and Teaching in Computing and Engineering (LaTiCE), (pp. 83-89). IEEE.
O'Flaherty, J., & Phillips, C. (2015) The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review. The Internet and Higher Education, 25, 85-95.
Prensky, M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the horizon, 9(5): 1-6.
Scott, G. (2015) Teaching and communicating science in a digital age. F1000Research 2015, 4: 83 doi: 10.12688/f1000research.6323.1.
Shelton, C. (2014) “Virtually mandatory”: A survey of how discipline and institutional commitment shape university lecturers’ perceptions of technology. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(4): 748-759.