Another dot in the blogosphere?

I read two reviews of research on MOOCs. One was by Campus Technology and the other by TechCrunch. Both processed the same article and data, but each had each its own take.

The Campus Technology review was decidedly positive:

Certification is a big draw. The granting of certificates for successful completion of a course also steadily increased up until the point in early 2016 when that option was no longer free. Overall, 159,000 unique individuals have earned a total of 245,000 certifications, both free and paid.

The TechCrunch was more critical and dove deeper in on aspect:

In 2015, each university saw about 800,000 participants all told, a peak for both. This year those numbers dropped precipitously, to about 540,000 at HarvardX and 670,000 at MIT. Combined with an increase in the number of courses, this meant the number of participants per course hit record lows. Certifications per course also dropped to the lowest numbers ever, though the total certified in 2016 did manage to beat the first year’s numbers.

Data is just that. It is subject to interpretation and bias no matter how objective you wish such studies to be. It is better to state that bias upfront than to feign neutrality.

This is also a good reminder that there are three sides to the coin: The head, the tail, and the side that goes all round.  The side that goes all round is what gives it depth. The same could be said of the discussion of data, studies, reviews, and articles.

Come early February I can correct a two-year mistake that I tied myself to — my TV subscription.

Two years ago I committed to a contract to my go-to telco for something they called Home Hub. Where home Internet, phone, and TV services were once separate, all three were bundled under that then new scheme.

The promise was that I would get more for less. That was true to some extent because I got a higher Internet speed for less cost per month. The digital home phone line was something we rarely used, but it was a comforting backup.

What was a waste of money was the TV subscription. My family and I do not watch it the way we did when my wife and I did when we were growing up, i.e., based on someone else’s timetable. We watched on demand.

The meant relying on platforms like YouTube and Netflix. This in turn meant that we paid for what we did not use or need — conventional TV delivered through a fibre optic cable.

Soon we will “cut” that cord and rely solely on data access for everything we need in terms of employment, education, enrichment, entertainment, etc. I will pay even less to get Internet access speeds that I could only dream of when I first went online.

I wish we had done this sooner when the competition was heating up among service providers and prices dropped even as options increased. The telcos had no choice but to listen to their customers and ride the trend of cord-cutting.

Still I wager that I am in the minority. Why else would the other options persist? The telcos create customer lock-in and retard change.

The status quo is comfortable for the telcos and most customers. However, this denies everyone a better experience. If customers take the initiative or are presented with newer options, they get better experiences for less cost. Happier customers mean better retention for telcos.

As I relate almost everything I experience to schooling and education, I see two reminders for educators and change agents.

If your plan is for one year plant rice.  If your plan is for ten years plant trees.  If your plan is for one hundred years educate children. -- Confucius

First, unlike telcos the school system changes very slowly because the impact on its bottom line is seen or felt very late. This is like watching a tree grow.

Second, the telcos respond to their customers because the latter speak loudly with their wallets and credit cards. If they are unhappy, they move to a better provider. The onus is on the telco to be progressive.

Most schools, on the other hand, have captive audiences. Like the telco customers, students have changing needs and wants. Unlike telcos, schools do not respond to these changes because the pressure is less immediate.

As educators, we need to ask ourselves if we can afford to wait. The cost of waiting does not come directly from the wallet. The cost is maintaining mindsets, expectations, and practices of teachers that are quickly losing relevance.

Standardised and fixed-time broadcasts used to be novel and then became the norm. The same could be said for teaching and delivering content. But just as TV viewers found another way with technology — on demand, just-in-time, and just-for-me — the learner of today needs a school embedded in today, not yesterday.

How else is schooling supposed to prepare the learner for tomorrow?

Breaking news: Nutella causes cancer. That is what this video will have you believe.

Video source

I am guessing that the video maker, SourceFed, was not interested in the facts, just the views, because it did not do its homework.

This Gizmodo contributor did and showed how the science and math do not add up.

What are some take home point points?

Get the facts right. The study did not mention Nutella specifically. You are not in any likely danger unless you consume jars of Nutella every day (and if you do, you have a bigger problem than by-products of palm oil).

What are some educational applications?

You cannot just take creative license — like creating the YouTube video or linking a study on palm oil with Nutella — without combining and balancing it with critical thinking.

To teachers who say they cannot find enough material to nurture both in their students, I point out that these examples are all around us. Serve them up along with a reasonable dose of Nutella spread on toast.

Are classrooms today different from those from a generation ago? Yes and no, depending on what you look at.

If you focus on the superficial, like infrastructure, you might say that classrooms have more modern fixtures. But just about any school-going child can still recognise a 19th century classroom because not much has changed.

On the other hand, classroom practices vary. For example, there are fewer incidences of corporal punishment now. Officially we might like to say there are none. So the classroom of today is different from yesteryear’s in that sense.

A recent STonline article, Put away e-devices in class? No way!, tried to show how else classrooms are different.

The article cited one example of “high-tech ways of engaging students”. It was the Swivl. Or in the case of the article, the “Swivl robot”.

I have used different generations of the Swivl (see older version above) and I would not consider it a robot in the educational context.

The device allows you to place a video-recording phone or slate on it so that it tracks the human presenter as he or she moves about the room.

Swivl “robot” not a robot in the sense that has been applied in schooling and education. The latter form is often an enhancement, an analogue, or even a replacement of the teacher.

According to the article, the device was used to record presentations and put the recordings online. Institutions of higher learning that purchased this tool initially used it to create “e-learning lectures”. This was a perfect example of doing the same thing differently or a case of different tool, same method.

The important issue should not be the technological enhancement, but what technology enables pedagogically and in terms of learning.

For example, recordings of presentations or teaching enable a learner to see themselves from another’s eyes. They might learn to take more and broader perspectives, and thus develop metacognitive strategies like reflecting and changing approaches.

This sounds like a mouthful, but it is also what is more important than the tool itself. The tool does not just enhance a process; it enables it. This is what makes the classroom different and better than the one in the past.

I pick on just one of the three anecdotes in the article to make that point. The other examples of gamification and virtual reality are worth reading and seem different enough. Managed well they are better practices than classrooms of old.

That said, critical readers (critical, not cynical) should note that standalone anecdotes to not necessarily represent an entire system. Small pockets of experimentation or innovation do not represent the entire suit or wardrobe.

Actual pockets are designed be discrete. Some are even hidden. Both are functional and are arguably essential, but very few people outside the owner of the pockets know what is in them. So I appreciate the article turning this pedagogical pocket inside-out.

But let us not get carried away and think that the pockets make the suit.

Today and tomorrow I link my Wireless@SGx experiences with the educational technology anecdotes of Singapore schools and institutions.

For the uninitiated, Wireless@SG is a wifi-hotspot network in Singapore. In theory, anyone — resident or visitor — can register to access the Internet for free with their own mobile device at malls, libraries, cafes, train stations, etc.

Wireless@SGx is a variant that is supposed to be more secure and can be tied to your mobile phone number so that you do not have to login at hotspots. This is very convenient in principle. For the regular user, however, the practice can be a mixed bag.

I frequent a neighbourhood library to get work done. I have found that I can connect quite reliably to Wireless@SGx on my phone, iPad, Chromebook, or MacBook when I am in the third floor study area.

I prefer the study area on the first level because it is more convenient and beside a cafe. However, my devices struggle to connect to the same network and I resort to tethering my laptop to my phone when I am there. My guess is the clinic next door and one the same level has another Wireless@SGx hotspot that somehow interferes with the library signal.

In short, I can travel just two floors in the same building, but have very different connectivity experiences.

Occasionally I travel to a larger library just a few train stops away. This library seems to be a good wifi signal on every floor. However, when I walk across the road for coffee at a cafe that also has Wireless@SGx, my access seems to depend on a flip of the coin. Heads, I have access; tails, I do not.

What does this have to do with the educational technology scene here in Singapore schools and institutions?

I am not referring to the infrastructure or the woes that schools have with official networks, segregated wifi, and alternative access.

I am referring to grand plans and standards that, in theory, are very different from the way they are interpreted and implemented in different contexts.

Like it or not, schools cannot share “best” practices because what works in one is not likely to work in another. The contexts are different. Some ideas might transfer where the differences are small. They certainly do not when the differences are large.

Like it or not, schools need to find their own way by making mistakes and learning from them.

Like it or not, the stories that are told by the press or official communiques that are released are often sugar-coated. They do not reveal what is most important about the educational technology implementations — the mistakes — because this looks bad.

We need to read accounts of visitors to our system, as well as official pieces and articles by local papers, about technology enhancements in classrooms with a shaker of salt.

This is not to say that the today’s classrooms are not different from one a generation ago. They are in terms of expectations, mindsets, and some behaviours.

The computing technology that might be in them is also different, but they are likely:

  • used and not integrated
  • used to do the same tasks as before
  • largely in the hands of the teacher
  • not leveraged on as often you might hope
  • shiny instead of being transparent

Anecdotes do not a system make. In the best case, they enlighten. In the worst case, they misinform. I elaborate on one such anecdote tomorrow.

A few times every week I get harassed, pleaded with, bribed, cajoled, threatened, insert-thesaurus-word-here. All because I was an early adopter of Twitter in 2007.

I can probably count on just one hand the number of people who have been polite about asking for my Twitter handle.

Twitter reminds me that I signed up in early 2007, but I posted my first tweet only in October that same year.

Since then I have tweeted regularly and fended off the curious, lazy, greedy, aggressive, etc. coveters of my handle.

But Twitter will not verify my account because I am not a brand or famous Ashley. Surely the labour of love over the last decade is worth that acknowledgement.

I read this forum letter and squirmed a bit. The premise of the first half of the letter seemed to be that if you change expectations about the PSLE, stakeholder behaviours will change too.

While that is probably true, the premise presupposes that shifting the goalposts in the new PSLE format (from T-scores to achievement levels) is the same as changing expectations. But if the expectations remain largely in the academic domain, the behaviours that feed it may remain the same, e.g., hothousing, drilling, excessive tuition.

Behaviours also shape expectations. People tend to use the same old strategy when facing a new situation. If it works, or if they can bend the the new situation to their will, they will take the path of least resistance. Behaviour can entrench the status quo.

If we shift the goalposts, will the way we kick the ball will also change? After all, the goal is still to score a goal.

If the point in play is penalty kicks to tie-break at the end of the game, the high stakes tend to favour practised drills and time-tested strategies.

The ball has to end up in the back of the net enough times so that you win. Likewise, a child has to do well enough in the PSLE to get to the next round of schooling, preferably in a match that favours him/her.

Those are the rules and the rules can change. Perhaps we need to play a different game altogether.

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