Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Virtual Education: Free Access for Everyone or Just a Techno Pipe Dream?

One of the barriers to global virtual education is the fact that online access is restricted in many countries. One company has an idea that might make this barrier a thing of the past. Of course we have to review such a proposal with a critical eye but the prospect is exciting as I am sure you will find in reading the proposal.  The link to this proposal is below:

New York company says it can beam free OUTERNET Wi-fi to every person on Earth | Mail Online

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Collaboration Online vs. Brick and Mortar Schools: Part II

In the last post I suggested some of the barriers that brick and mortar schools face when trying to do collaboration. Both students and teachers recognize that many collaborations appear to be contrived and superficial because they never take the student out into the world in a way that is real to them.

In this post it is time to stretch the imagination to see how many of the constraints faced by educators and students can be broken down in an online environment. The first idea that we need to understand as educators is that students want to have educational experiences that have them interact with the world that is outside their classroom. When astronaut, Marc Garneau hosted a Skype session from the International Space Station with students here on earth, students were asking why all their lessons couldn't be like this. It is a very good question. We have the technology to make such events happen.
Imagine for a moment a project with NASA where student collaborators from all over the globe gather to take on a challenge, to meet each other, to encourage each other to work as a team.

Each collaborator is given a specific function on the team to help contribute to the solution of the problem described. Each student is told that their particular function is crucial to the mission. To help them they have online access to the professional scientists at JPL. The scientists at JPL take part in the assessment of the student collaborators work at the end of the mission. The students use Google Docs  in creating a final report which allows then to collaborate no matter where they are on the globe and see the edits being done or suggested by the others. Language does not need to be a barrier. With the advancement of digital language translators, a student will be able to write in their native language but when it is posted it is translated into the language of the group hosting the project. If remarks are sent back to the student, the language of the host is translated automatically into the native language of the student. Digital translators will evolve into something we would call an universal translator. As part of this project, one of the goals is for the students to come up with innovative solutions or alternatives to what has been done in the past. At the heart of this is a transformation from students being the consumers of knowledge to students being the creators of new knowledge.
This is just a simple example of what is possible. Such types of collaborations lead to the evolution of methods of assessment by necessity.

Another possibility for collaboration online introduces the creation of an augmented reality world or a virtual world where students gather to collaborate on the problem. Within this world, the tools and labs necessary for students to effectively collaborate on the problem are created. Within this world, an amphitheatre is created where avatars of leading and famous scientists who were part of the field the students are dealing with, can be called up and students can not only ask questions of them but also be mentored by them on dealing with specific problems germane to their particular project. Consider the possibilities if you were mentored by a Leonardo Da Vinci,  a Copernicus, or a Galileo!

Now you might think that this sounds a little far-fetched but consider the fact that many of the ideas that have been considered far fetched by the majority in the past became a reality.
We need to be innovative in order to make use of the opportunities that the Internet provides to enrich the education of young people. We have the tools to begin this exploration; we only need the will and courage to take the first step because it is a step that will change a generation's despair over their future to one of hope.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Collaboration Online vs. Brick and Mortar Classroom: Part I

The issue of enabling students to collaborate has always in the history of education created some concerns on the part of educators. Socrates had a unique approach and actually fostered student collaboration but it was the type of collaboration in which he held the students accountable for their participation and also for what they said as part of their participation. His goal was to teach young minds how to think and how to challenge what they heard in a rationale, truth-seeking manner. To actually suggest that truth is not just a matter of opinion but actually existed in human society was something that the society in which Socrates lived greatly feared. Their idea was don't teach students how to think but teach them instead what to think and not to question what the elite of that society stated as truth. This got Socrates into a great deal of trouble with the governing authorities and the rest is history.
Collaboration in the brick and mortar school still focuses on the idea that it is okay to have students collaborate but just make sure that at the end of the process, you are teaching them what they should think. Examples of this are readily apparent when it comes to dealing with social issues in which the given society has an engrained point of view that they want inculcated to the students. As a result, opinions and educated guesses are taught as being fact and truth. The idea that a student might challenge what everyone takes for granted reminds me of the story of the "Emperor's New Clothes" in which contrary to the wisdom of the adults surrounding him, one small boy stated very clearly that the majority is wrong in regards to the emperor's new clothes.
Educators can state all kinds of rationales for not teaching students to think and challenge but largely it comes down to fear that what they have taken for granted for decades may not be right thinking. To be fair, there are some school systems that do take seriously the idea of encouraging students to do critical thinking. Where it goes off the rails is when students want to take what they have learned and put it into social action.
One example that I was involved in many years ago involved the students studying the living habitats of animals in a large city zoo. The students visited the zoo to gather information, they used statistical analysis to come up with conclusions and then created a report with recommendations. One of the main recommendations in the report was to take some of the animals out of cages and create more open enclosures that more closely resembled their natural habitats. They even learned how to do a cost-benefit analysis through the research they had completed. Next came the social action component in which they requested in writing that they be able to present their findings to zoological society of that city. The response by the adults who had the responsibility for oversight of the zoo was that the students should stick to in-class studies and not waste this groups time. The postscript for this experience was that the recommendations the students had made were actually put into force the following year with the Zoological Society taking the credit for these brilliant modifications.
What do you think the students learned from this?
Essentially, it is okay for students to engage in collaboration in the classroom but leave the real world changes to the adults.
Students need to know that their participation in society is valued and real so that they can see the effects of their actions. The problem with the brick and mortar school is that there are too many people at the top of the education systems who feel threatened by potential change.
For example if a student breaks into a computer system run by a board of education, their first response is to want to have him or her charged by the authorities instead of hiring that student to help troubleshoot the problems of their computer system.
Collaboration in an online environment has the potential to break the bonds that suffocate innovation in the brick and mortar schools. How? That will be the focus of part II.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dealing With Non-Sanctioned Collaboration in Online Education

In the last post I suggested that online collaboration among students can be quite productive if the tasks presented to the students gave each person the opportunity to use their personal skills to make meaningful and real contributions to the team's task. How these tasks are designed are key to fostering the right perceptions of the students that what they are doing enriches their education.

Having stated the above does not mean that a course should have an over abundance of collaboration built into but instead should be one of a variety of measures that challenge and inspire students to give their best. The other measures should make use of the tools that are available on the web. They should not be the result of transferring  what is done in the brick and mortar classroom  into an online environment. This might be expedient and comfortable for those who have a background in the brick and mortar schools but it lacks imagination and students will be the first to say so.

Students, being as fallible as their teachers, are still going to put this type of lesson design to the test. Non-sanctioned collaboration is one of those tests that students will use to see if this system is for real or whether it just another experiment that people are not really serious about in which students are the guinea pigs. Therefore, an online education system needs to have built into it counter-measures that meet such challenges as non-sanctioned collaboration.

One example of an online school that uses counter-measures is the Virtual High School based in Bayfield, Ontario, Canada. To counter non-sanctioned collaboration, there are some preliminary understandings that educators have that Virtual high School(VHS) has stressed:

First, the responsibility for guarding against this type of challenge rests with the course designer, the department heads, the teachers and the administration of the school. It is a shared responsibility. The course designer has the responsibility of building a course that satisfies the expectations of education ministries, students and parents. The course designer should be guided by the vision of online education that sees students not just as learners of what there is but also architects of new knowledge and skills of what can be. The school does not ask students to purchase textbooks and its courses are not videotaped lessons. Instead, the course designers have designed the courses to be interactive, to make use of all the potential tools and multimedia available on the Internet in such away as to stimulate thoughtful engagement in what the students are learning. Designing high quality, interactive and thoughtful lessons using tools that students see as making use of the online environment is a first step towards taking away any inclination that a student may have towards taking short cuts.
Teachers have the responsibility of communicating with students often. Some teachers have used You Tube introductions to allow students to put a face to their teacher. If there appears to be a discrepancy in the work produced, it is understood by the student that a random interview using Skype can be required in which the department head or instructor can interview the student about the piece of work in question or in fact any assignment completed by the student.

Secondly, the nature of the course might emphasize such qualities as:
  • assignments that are weighted appropriately (too heavy and the pressure is too great, too little and they don't have value)
  • assignments that build on skills learned in previous assignments. This discourages the online tendency that some students have to "cherry pick" assignments. To do this in a course such as World History could be disastrous for a student due to the cause and effect nature of historical events.
  • assignments that require students to do self-reflection. The use of "what-if" scenarios using the tools of the Internet can lead to very thoughtful results. The use of online simulations where your decisions affect the outcome of the simulation also engage the student in a thoughtful and immersive experience. At the end of such an experience it is important to have post simulation discussion where the student has the opportunity to be innovative in suggesting updates or alternative scenarios to the one in the simulation.
  • assignments that require students to find and use unique and time sensitive resources to address a problem.
This school has also suggested some tell-tale signs for detecting collaboration. Some of these signs are:
  • exceptionally high marks
  • submitting assignments all at once or completing quizzes all at once
  • moving through the course very quickly
  • inconsistent writing style between correspondence with teacher and writing within assignments
  • not "showing work" and/or using methodology/terminology not yet used in the course.
  • discrepancy in marks between assignments, tests and exam.
These ideas are in addition to having a three level response to plagiarism by a student.
Is their system perfect? Of course not! However, they are still evolving their practices within an online environment. They do describe some of their ideas in their own YouTube channel

Virtual Education: Is Collaboration akin to Plagiarism?

An earlier conversation involved the question: Is student cheating easier to do in an online education system than in the regular brick and mortar classroom? The rationale for this question is the suggestion that if you can't see the students in an online environment then how do you know that someone else other than the registered student isn't doing the work for them?

It is a good question. In an online environment there needs to be checks and balances. However, is collaboration by students in an online environment always wrong? I would say no depending on what your expectations are for certain assignments that you assign them.
One thing that should be made clear at the start of the assignment is whether or not this assignment offers the opportunity to collaborate with other students. If it does then there should be a mechanism where students may declare that they are working with specific students as their collaborators for that assignment. Also, the students should identify a group leader who will direct the tasks of the group. It should be communicated very clearly what role each participant will play in the group and what skills they have that will enable them to make relevant contributions to the task. The roles described must bring value to the assigned task. Within the group, a digital journal should be kept detailing the contributions made by each student with the understanding that part of their individual assessment will focus on the real and relevant contributions made by them. The collaboration task should be a timed event with the understanding that when time runs out, they will be exited by the task so that no further work can be done on it. Having a count down clock displayed on their desktop would be an effective way to help students track time on task.
The nature of the collaboration task is extremely important. It should not be a task that requires students to simply "cut and paste" information from the Internet. It should be a task that focuses on the the upper levels of thinking( analysis, synthesis, evaluation) and enable students to be innovative as a team. The use of simulations that emphasize the collaborative skills to solve a particular problem is one example where each individual can use his or her specific skills and feel that they have made a valuable contribution to the group and to the solution of the task. Another such task can be one that involves simply confronting the group with a problem that requires skill in mathematics, natural science, physics, geography..etc. As a suggestion, consider a task in which a group is confronted with the decision of climbing Mt Everest or K2. In the planning and decision making for the success of such a mission, we can see elements of mathematics, natural science, physics, geography and even videography that would come to bare on the task. It could also be related to students that the skills each student brings to the collaboration is crucial to the success of the task.
In an online environment, we can incorporate all the tools, multimedia and others, to make the task challenging. Use of such things as YouTube footage, HD graphics and even 3D graphics that can be manipulated  360 degrees of specific mountain areas can capture the minds and hearts of students. The instructor's role in such a collaboration can be to monitor the collaboration and introduce variables into the task at different points to see how the students deal with the changes. For example a variable might be the introduction of a weather event at some point or the need to translate some message that the expedition ground guide might be trying to get across to the climbers.

When we specifically design online collaboration tasks that are clear in their description and challenging enough to have students feel that they are totally immersed in the task, you won't see students that will sit back and let the others do the work. They will feel that their contributions are valued and will see that their contributions led to the successful completion of the task.

I will leave you with a simple question: Is it possible to introduce temporary student collaboration in a quiz situation without compromising the integrity of the quiz?

Next entry deals with the ways different education groups discourage non-sanctioned collaboration in an online environment..

Friday, February 14, 2014

Teacher Effectiveness in Virtual Education: Part II

There have been some very interesting posts in the Google+ communities of late. One of them that peaked my interest was posted in the form of a question: "Would you rather have a high quality educator or a great teacher as an educator for yourself or your children?" The link to this discussion is below:

In discussing teacher effectiveness in brick and mortar school environment, there are qualities that can be transferred and interpreted within an online education framework.

The following might give you pause to consider your own practice as an online educator:

20 Signs You've Made a Difference as an Educator - InformED :

Certainly, the students we have represent a barometer as to our effectiveness as online educators. How well we function, using imagination, innovation and also empathy in this online environment will be readily noticeable by students. Think about the 20 signs mentioned in the article and ask yourself with careful introspection, are these signs reflected in my own online teaching?

More later....

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Teacher Effectiveness in a Virtual Education Environment-Part I

The title of this post begs the question: How can we determine teacher effectiveness in an online environment? In an earlier post I suggested that unless teachers re-define their roles in an online environment, others with different priorities will do it for them. Here is the reasoning why it needs to be done and sooner than later.
Teachers are the products of their training. The training that most teachers have received have prepared them to function in the environment of the physical school and physical classroom. Everything that a teacher can expect to face in that environment they have received training and practice in dealing with. The assessment strategies have been refined and focused on for implementation in this environment. Teachers have become quite comfortable with the training and the accompanying education philosophy behind them.
Now, a new educational environment appears which is in fact quite alien to the teacher. His or her training does not quite synch with this new environment and so the response is to try to modify and integrate the training so that it fits into this new environment. Due to the fact that this is very uncomfortable for the teacher, the education authorities decide to take it slow. This results in the blended learning initiatives which allows the teacher to experiment with this new environment but still the comfortable security of the physical classroom.

Then, along come the students who are digital natives and feel quite at home in this new environment. Students are very perceptive in discerning when someone is uncomfortable in this environment and if it is their teachers there are some students out of good will who are willing to mentor their teachers. There are also others who see this as an opportunity to take advantage of these digital immigrants. I will tell you that we learn more from the students who try to take advantage than the ones who are willing to mentor teachers. What these students are saying is that our "best practices" are becoming anchors around our necks and that of the students. Why? Teachers need to be innovators in this new environment and resting on the "best practices" of the past that applied to the physical school and classroom environment is leading to stagnation when applied to the online environment.
Why are students tempted to cheat in an online environment? They need to know that the teachers are comfortable enough with the online environment to innovate practices in that environment that seamlessly fit with the nature of that environment. They need to know that we have created practices that make cheating a non-starter. They also need to know that the online lessons are not just more of what they had in the physical school. That educators care enough about their education to push the boundaries in the way we design the learning experiences for them. Do we take advantage of the wealth of ideas in the online environment to make lessons that are stimulating, challenging and inspirational?
What ideas of teacher effectiveness relate to the online environment? That is the next part....