Saturday, October 5, 2013

Twitter List for Irish EdTech Business

I've been busy on other projects, but you might find this twitter list of Irish Edtech business useful. Tweet me over @LearnLode if you should be on it. Here's the feed widgit.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

LearnLode: New Project, new direction.

I'm presently starting a new venture, an online learning platform called LearnLode. The blog here will continue to be quiet for a while as I focus on that, but it won't be completely silent, as the underlying question - what kind of higher education my children will have in the 2020's and beyond, remains valid and compelling. If I have something on my mind no one else is saying, I'll make the time to post here.

While I've been writing for this blog, and working on other projects in the space, I've had the opportunity to think deeply about what online learning looks like, reading widely and looking at all sorts of different platforms and models. I got a sense of how I thought online learning should work, and how I believe it will work by the end of the decade, but I found nothing like that online today. No business or platform today offers what's going to be needed in 2020 and beyond as the ecosystem develops.

So we're going to build it ourselves. I was fortunate to be in a time and a place where I could commit the time and energy for starting a new venture, and where I could find a co-founder with the passion and energy to help make it real, and to live in a place that is a strongly supportive of technology start ups. We're deep in design and development now, and in time, we'll move to a closed beta so you can see what we're up to. In the meantime, we're on twitter @learnlode, there's a Facebook page and a Tumblr. Keep an eye on us, we've got big plans.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Reflection on OER Reuse.

I've always been a little suspicious about OER reuse within University courses. I had a nagging suspicion it was an overhyped idea, and that there would be trouble in the details, but until someone asked me about it today, I couldn't put my finger on exactly what was bugging me*.

There are obvious widely known difficulties, of course. Most of the Open Educational Resources are, in fact, simply lectures, which are a long yard from being a course, however good they may be. The transmissive elements of a course should, in an ideal world, be a fairly small part of a wider exercise in learning, much of which, discussion, formative assessment and so in, does not seem amenable to easy duplication as OERs. It may be that the big benefit of OER's is that it explicitly shifts the focus away from the transmissive stuff to the actual teaching, but that's another story.

Adapted OERs to a specific set of learning objectives in ones own course requires care and calls on the lecturer, as our higher level educators are still anachronistically known, to have much more of a curatorial role. They select the good stuff from here or there, and lay it before the students in a hopeful breadcrumb trail to knowledge. This is nothing new. Lecturers have always given out readings, papers, and so on. Directing students to a good lecture online isn't a radical invention. Hence why was a bit 'so what' about the OER movement. Of course we should share our material, but reuse never seemed like a big deal to me, at least not for individual lectures here and there. Lecturer's reuse all the time. What's news?

But now we have whole, coherent lecture courses online, and in mighty abundance. In a logical universe, for courses which are non unique, (for arguments sake, Organic Chemistry), we only need one good set of lectures. In a logical universe, we could have a word with our lecturers in those disciplines, and point out this fact, and suggest, in reasonable and measured tones, that they simply direct the students to those great online lectures from that prima donna they hate who made it big in the US. Instead, we advise, they should spend their teaching time in small, discursive groups, perhaps working closely with borderline students in the (now very large) class, or supporting them online as leader of a team of tutors, or some other teaching model that's going to be a lot harder work than performance lectures.

In the real universe, that's going to be one short, ugly conversation. First up, they have tenure, and a perfectly legal and proper right to teach however they please, for good reasons. Secondly, the job description on their contract says 'Lecturer' and trying to fiddle with that is likely to lead to long and involved conversations with Unions and HR Law specialists. OER reuse can't be directed from on high. Thirdly, they have an ego (who doesn't) which might not love the idea of being some kind of second fiddle to aforementioned prima donna.

Of course, if the lecturer decides to do that themselves, as their own idea, it's no problem. Or is it? Can one institution deliver a course for fee paying students built around an open licenced lecture course from somewhere else? In theory, I suppose if the students are paying for the discursive teaching, not the lectures, but really, I think we're gonna need another lawyer here. We've been building courses around other people's textbooks for years, but we paid them a truck of money for those textbooks. That's the whole textbook model -a course in a box. We couldn't be accused of reselling free stuff. A formal partnership with whoever made the OER in the first place would probably be smart to square that up - more lawyers please. But if we do a formal partnership, now we are, formally, of reselling someone else's lecture course, which will fly like a lead balloon with Senior Management, who won't understand that buying in lectures isn't so different from buying in textbooks and lot's of fee paying Mamas and Papas who don't really get that lectures aren't courses will start turning up with questions about what exactly they're paying for, if little Johnny is at home all day watching courses from Harvard online. And let's not forget the staff Unions, who can reasonably be expected to raise a brouhaha.

Perhaps the OER community has solved all these issues and developed model of whole course adoption that square all this away. They seem smart. I'm hopeful. Do tell.

I have an easier solution. Let's just let our own institutions lecturers, who are perfectly good at lecturing, capture their own lectures and offer them to students. They can update them a little each year, and the delivery establishes them as a trusted figure in the minds of the students, so they can effectively lead the discursive teaching. Yes, we know, it's a waste of electrons, when we have all this great OER lying around, and yes, we wind up with 200 decent sets of lectures covering the same course in organic chemistry, but really, it's the easiest way. In time, everyone will get used to OER, and the idea that lectures aren't courses and these problems will go away. That's a change of mindset, a generational change. Across the transition, much time and effort will be wasted, but that's been true since they invented videotape. Minds change slowly.  We must wait for our preconceptions to catch up with our dreams.

*To be exact, it was about two hours after someone asked me, which is always most annoying.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Leaving on a jetplane. International Education cuts both ways.

A relative of mine is currently grinding through the end of his Leaving Certificate exams, and how he does won't make a bit of difference to his life. This isn't because he has some great insight into the big picture that his peers, and I, lack. It's because he has an acceptance letter from a very respectable University in the United States.

Statistically, he's not an outlier. He's smart, but no more so than many of the other kids sweating it out this month to win the points race. His immediate family are comfortable, but not wealthy. They are, to be fair, somewhat better educated than the average, but are by no means outliers..

In a different age, he would have been a sure thing for the local university and have to make the best of it. Instead, he's going to play a different game, and engage with his future at a level that wouldn't be possible in Ireland. Win, lose or draw, he's jumped ahead three squares in the game of life, and is going to get opportunities at a level his stay at home peers simply won't have.

What does this mean for Universities in Ireland. If the best and the brightest of their potential undergraduates can now go overseas as easily as getting to Dublin or Cork, why wouldn't they? NUIM or Notre Dame? CIT or Cornell? It's ok. There's be plenty of students.You can get along fine with the ones who don't have the pluck to go abroad, the ones who don't have the audacity to think outside the box and sit SAT's, and the ones without the determination to dive into the overseas college applications maelstrom. There's plenty of students who will just grind through the leaving certificate because that's what everyone else does, and go to the local university, because that's what their pals are doing. Your University can make do with them, as the cream of the crop heads off overseas. Skimmed milk diet. Is that ok? When Irish Universities think of international education, they invariably think of Chinese, Malaysians or Saudi students paying full economic fees, little human ATMs walking out of the Arrivals hall to pretty up balance sheet. We forget that international education can cut both ways. Airport have a departures hall too.

In many ways the most transformational learning technology is the jet engine, relentlessly ferrying thousands, millions of students away to pastures greener. The internet's most significant contribution to education so far might well be the online application form. No longer are our children limited by their career guidance teacher ("Would you consider the seminary. You'll never want for a shirt on your back." my father was once advised). They can find the one best place to help them be whatever it is they want to be and find a way to get there. The early ones will break ground, and show it is possible to go overseas at undergraduate level. Once teachers, students and parents know it can be done, others will follow. Our diaspora is another enabler. There are few places on earth without an 'Irish Mafia' who might keep an eye on young Seanie or Mary. Many parents have lived and worked in these places. Boston is, in many ways, more familiar to us than Belfast.

Deep prosperity helps too.We forget that, in current climes of doom and gloom, that we are at the level of utopian wealth Keynes prophesied in "Economic prospects for our grandchildren" when slow and steady growth has given us incomes unimaginable in 1930's (Keynes piece is timely reading). Of course it's expensive to attend university overseas, but real fees are coming down the pipeline in Ireland, so staying here is expensive too, and wherever you study, you must still pay housing and food. You may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and many Irish parents can put education first on their family budgets. Indeed US colleges provide student supports precisely to attract bright candidates without big wallets, and in a global Higher Education market, they'll be seeking to build a global Alumni base, which is, after all, where the real money is for them. They're not charging for the undergraduate you are, they are investing in the Alumnus you will be. May our children be wise enough to do the same.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The VLE as Kenwood Chef

Virtual Learning Environments are a lot like expensive food processors. They come with a lot of interesting looking blades and attachments, but most people use only them to make smoothies.

If you only use your €400 Food Processer as a €30 Juicer, why not get rid of it, and just use a juicer? Content management systems are cheaper to install and maintain. That's an interesting idea, but I wouldn't advise it for several reasons. Installed VLEs nowadays tend to be tightly integrated with other campus systems, plagiarism detection tools and so on. You can't easily turn them off and go cold turkey. Plus, a lot of large scale content management systems are even harder to use than VLE's.

A more important reason is that Virtual Learning Environments act a kind of a gateway drug for online Learning. You come onboard first to put up some handouts because the photocopier fumes give you a migraine. Next thing, you throw up some slides, exercises. It's basic content transmission stuff. You could quit anytime. But for some people, that's not enough. Perhaps a few audio files, to help with revision. Maybe a little discussion forum, to draw out the in class lurkers. Next thing you know, you're digging Downes and Illich, handcoding PHP and you've moved on from the VLE entirely to open source systems. VLE's are for newbs, you'll say, after all, all they do is perpetuate hierarchical transmission models of education, man. For the right kind of mind, VLE's are the start of a slippery slope. First dose free with Moodle!

But in reality, few move past the VLE as a pure content management system. We're all still using our expensive Kenwood Chef as a juicer. But that's ok. If the VLE does nothing more than act as a heavy lifter for the transmission side of teaching, and allows you to execute a flip and use your in class time for something else, fantastic. Over time though, this low grade usage of the VLE will change, as other needs like Plagiarism detection, assessment and grade management come into the picture.  Presently, people tend to use VLE's reactively, to solve problems, rather than proactively, to be better educators.Inevitably, pressure of student numbers create problems, like assessment and retention, and the VLE has tools in place to help to solve them, once the need becomes urgent.

We have the tools already in house to do more than we think, if we learn to use them. Another big gadget won't make us better online educators. That's like people who can hardly scramble eggs fetishising  over creme brulee torches in the kitchen shop. Another cookbook won't help either. I've got dozens, and I still only cook 5 things. Just like cooking, our online learning should focus on doing simple things really well, with the tools we already have, and the best ingredients you can get.

Due credit: This metaphor came up while at the recent EDIN writers retreat in Rosslare. We have a little grassroots community of practice who research on VLE's and were working on a book chapter (see my last post) and this came analogy out of that twelve brain hivemind. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What do students think of Virtual Learning Environments

Students want lecturers to make more and better usage of their Virtual Learning Environments (Blackboard, Moodle and so forth), and say that using VLE's helps them to learn. Those are two of the many, many findings presented by a project I'm involved with at EdTech 2012 last week. The presentation, with audio, is embedded above. Pop on your headphones and have a listen as you read.

The project looks at how students really use and feel about virtual learning environments. What's unique about it is the scale. I kicked it off here in Cork in 2008, and four years later it's still running across a dozen institutions in Ireland, using a common survey instrument to give us a dataset that allows us to unpick differences in student attitudes between different institutions, VLE systems and demographic groups. It's a big dataset, and we're only scratching the surface.

This is the first time we've been able to do time comparison between institutions in the 2008/09 and 2011/12 groups. Damien Raftery talks about those results from about 7'14 in. It's really interesting to see patterns emerge over time, as VLE usage seems to climb an S curve over time, and student usage patterns evolve over time since '08, as economies crashes, tablets launched and broadband cover improved.

It's an entirely open, grassroots project. We have a big, highly engaged team, but get no grants and have no project leader, and we like it that way. The work gets done because the findings are genuinely useful for people figuring out how to move forward with their own VLE's. Everyone contributes according to their interests and skills. New institutions are always welcome, whether you just want to use the survey instrument, pool data, or get involved on the analysis side. Over the summer, we'll be kicking off a staff survey instrument to complement the student perspective, and hopefully we'll start getting into system metrics next year to help address the limitations of survey data. If you want more information, there's a paper on AISHE-J (old data, but useful nevertheless) and all going well a chapter coming down the pipeline in EDIN's Emerging Issues III late in the year, or just get in touch with me, or any of the authors.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Performance Funding: Easier said than done

Recently, HEA released consultation document about the implementation of the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (The Hunt Report). It's worth a read, notably Appendix C, is a consultation paper the Strategic Dialogue process that will lead to performance related funding. The fact that we need a consultation paper about a dialogue leading to performance funding tells a lot about what a gnarly problem performance funding is. I think it's worth taking a little time to unpack some of the assumptions implicit in performance related funding models, and how one might go about implementing them successfully and how they might achieve their intended purpose (not the same thing!).

The basic idea of a performance related funding component is that there will be metrics, they will be wise and good, and that some proportion of funding will be contingent on doing well with your metrics.

The first implicit assumption here is that there will be winners and losers. Outfits that do well will be rewarded with more funding and will probably do better, having more money to play with. Institutions that do badly will lose funding, and, in time, fail. The percentage of funding we make performance based determines how many funding cycles the process takes. Set it to 100%, and we are done in one round. At the other extreme, as the proportion of performance linked funding approaches zero, the time taken for it to have an effect approaches infinity. This suggests an obvious path to painless implementation - set the percentage trivially low. Thus the framework can be successfully implemented and victory declared without actually needing to face any of the policy implications of the framework actually working as intended.

The second implicit assumption is that a market based model, where winners and losers are driven by student choice, either cannot work or should not be allowed to work. This is certainly the case in Ireland, where price fixing (at zero, plus registration fee and living costs) and an excess of demand over supply (almost all courses fill) basically neuters any consequential market competition between institutions. Your courses will fill and your monies will come in, really, no matter what you do as an institution.

Implementing a performance component to funding essentially tries to replace market style incentives with KPI driven ones, where how well you do on the metrics will determine how much money you get. We're keeping the buffet where students choose what course they wish with negligible difference in cost to them between a plate of chips and a plate of salad, but the state will pay more if they eat salad.

The third assumption is that there exists a set of wise and useful metrics to which we can all agree. The HEA paper is very sensitive to this point, and the hazards of chasing single KPI, University Rankings and so forth are well understood. Most academics either scoff the whole idea of metrics at all ("My contribution is utterly unquantifiable!") or, over in the sciences, fall to fighting over which metrics to use. The experience of research funding, which is driven by metrics on papers, patents and so forth, is not terribly encouraging. The choice of metrics strikes at the heart of complex issues around the purpose of the University. Utilitarians like me will suggest employment outcomes and graduate earnings compared to a propensity matched non graduate control group, and will be promptly heckled by holistic types who will argue the broader value of education in democratic society, knowledge as an end in itself, and so forth.

This suggests another easy path to implementation - pick so many metrics that everyone's a winner. Cook up a basket of 100 metrics, and let each institution pick three. They improve on them for a few years, win a biscuit, and then move on to another set once the low hanging fruit in that area have been plucked. Everyone's a winner! This might actually improve some things due to the Hawthorne effect, if anything else, and will give everyone something to do as institutions jiggle about winning performance funding year after year for something or other. Ministers can declare great progress is being made, and only the most cynical of observers (i.e. me) might suggest the process is just brownian motion, like a school sports day for junior infants except no one must suffer the indignity of falling over in the sack race.

There is no good solution to the metrics problem. You can avoid the problem by allowing a free market as in the US, or by funding everyone equally and blindly, as now in Ireland. Those approaches bring their own problems which may well be harder than picking smart metrics. You just have to get institutions to come up with metrics that they care enough about to chase, and the funding agency cares enough about to fund, and hope for the best.

If you solve that problem and don't neuter the process by setting a trivial slice of funding to performance, you must put in place a system for eliminating institutions that fail. Not allowing weak institutions to fail makes a nonsense of the process and, as we are seeing in other sectors, comes at a high price in the long run. If you are not prepared to allow your biggest University to fail if it comes to it, and have no plan in place to deal with that eventuality, then performance related funding is not for you.

And yet, perhaps there are smart ways to reduce the risk of institutional failure while maintaining the incentive effect of performance funding. Applying the performance funding to the total grant is a crude mechanism. A neater way would be to apply it to the payroll component only. If your organisation hit's it targets, everyone gets an end of year bonus, from the President to the lowliest postdoc. After all, you incentivise people, not organisations. Give the actual people an incentive to succeed without permanently tipping the playing field by obliging weaker organisations to find structural cutbacks or allowing strong ones to gold plate themselves. Instead of weakening already weak organisations by cutting their global funding, you provide strong internal incentives for them to boot their management team, and back that up by providing failing institutions with support from a tiger team who can roll in and help them find out why they failed, and remedy that.

Nothing around the implementation of performance related funding for higher education is going to be simple or easy. Maybe what's needed is a framework around the consultation paper for the strategic dialogue leading to an implementation strategy for waiting until it's the next governments problem...