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I started using QR codes when they were not cool. They might even have been on the wane, but I persisted because they suited my pedagogical needs.

Video source

The example above is one of my teacher education classes in 2011. It combined station and game-based learning with a QR-enabled scavenger hunt.

Most phones did not read QR codes by default so I had to include instructions in my resources for my users to download a now defunct app. 

Looking back, I think I got this hasty video done because a higher-up asked for examples of technology-mediated pedagogy. I got the help of a video cameraperson and an editor who put this video in double quick time. We were quite cheeky with the cheesy music and transitions!

Spring forward to today when QR codes returned with such a vengeance that they have become a norm. They are so common that LifeHacker thought they should offer advice on staying safe when using them.

Not all their advice was practical though. One was to ask staff at an establishment for a full URL to enter manually. The whole point of QR codes is to avoid that.

But miscreants could stick a bad QR code over a legitimate one, so what might we do then? LH suggested getting a more secure scanner instead of the one included with your phone. However, some phones might already have security baked into their operating systems.

What I actually learnt from the article was how to preview shortened URLs from bit.ly or TinyURL.

If the URL was generated by Bitly, you can simply add a plus sign (“+”) to the URL and Bitly will display a preview. Another popular URL shortener, TinyURL, offers a similar preview feature—just place “preview” in front of the shortened URL.

For example, a preview of my blog using TinyURL is https://preview.tinyurl.com/5n6nbjhb while that of bit.ly is https://bitly.com/anotherdot+.

Back to QR codes. When I started using them, they seemed novel. But that was not why I incorporated them. My main agenda was to provide a learning experience in which student teachers relied almost solely on their own phones. It was mobile learning in the form of a scavenger hunt, not the usual approach of simply stripping down desktop site information to mobile form.

I had to ensure that my learners accessed bite-sized resources at each station they visited. Being a scavenger hunt, they had to do this quickly so that they spent more time thinking and discussing instead of struggling to access a resource.

I have always called what I do technology-mediated pedagogy — the technology enables teaching and learning experiences that we might not have otherwise. It takes creative-critical design and hard work (some insight via video), but it is also great fun to do!

This critique by Martin Weller on why “education secretaries hate online learning” does not apply only to politicians. Other stakeholders like administrators, teachers, and parents can be just as misguided.

Weller offered possible reasons for why these folk might portray “online learning as, at best, a lazy, cheap option and at worst, some form of abuse”. Among them are these gems.

There is…

Faulty generalisation – nearly every Education Secretary seems to feel that their own experience of education is the only dataset they need to draw upon. They want Latindiscipline and Oxbridge type higher education. Online learning does not look like any of these things, so is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

Combined with…

Ignorance – I haven’t seen any desire to engage with what online, or blended, learning really looks like in a positive sense from any recent education secretary. And so they operate in a state of wilful ignorance about how effective it can be, and what is required to make it so.

Take any complex phenomenon, try to reduce it to a soundbite by combining anecdotal generalisation and wilful ignorance, and you get oversimplification and a standstill.

The oversimplification is that online learning is cheaper because it is more efficient and lazy because you do not have to show up in a classroom or because you can reuse resources.

The design, development, evaluation, and revision of online learning experiences is not cheaper than face-to-face. Factor in the time and effort to create a short YouTube video that is not just a talking head. Heck, consider what it even takes to make a talking head video good with proper script writing, camera work, sound, lighting, backgrounding, illustrating, editing, etc.!

Now consider how online learning might comprise asynchronous tasks. This could mean that learners do not Zoom or otherwise meet ‘live’ by other means like text chat or audio exchange. This is an intentional design element to take advantage of self-managed and dispersed individual time (over shared and limited classroom time) as well as reflective and investigative space (over immediate  or superficial talk). How is this lazy?

If a policymaker has only seen teaching from the student side of the desk, s/he cannot possibly empathise with what a teacher experiences. If a teacher has not designed lessons specifically with online affordances and limitations before, or not been given professional development to teach online, they cannot make comparisons or put online learning down.

To move forward, we need to learn from the pandemic pivot to online teaching and learning. Both successful and failed attempts offer lessons and ideas for education as a whole. We lose if stakeholders make uninformed judgements and throw away the gem in their hands only because it was not polished.

I did not know what I wanted to be even when I was in my early 20s. I eventually figured it out that being a teacher suited my personality and skills after being a military instructor during my full-time national service and a teaching assistant during my undergraduate years.

I certainly did not envision myself pursuing a Masters overseas, getting a scholarship for a Ph.D., and then returning home to be a professor. Those years were probably the most transformative and important in my life.

That said, I wonder what I might be now if I had walked down different paths. 

As a teenager, I was passionate about photography and wanted to build my own darkroom. I also discovered that I was good with wood and metal work because my school partnered with another to offer that subject.

I still take quirky photos when I travel and I am capable of fixing things around the house. But I doubt that these are work people would pay me for.

Video source

Of late, I have been watching the phone and laptop repair videos of Hugh Jeffreys. I embedded one example above. 

His videos are a great example of being able to see much of the process behind the final product. His portfolio of work is a perfect argument for anyone who might challenge what he charges for his services.

I wonder if I might be able to do what he does. I share his passion for not treating our devices like disposables. I admire the effort he takes to repair or refurbish devices for reuse.

While I might share his eye for detail, love for tinkering, and dedication to procedure, I realise how different our educations must have been.

Mine was largely formal and academic. His might have been informal and practical. There is so much information that one can glean from a 17-year-old repository called YouTube to then put into practice, practice, practice.

This learning alternative does not offer academic qualifications, but it seeds and fuels the passions of bakers, musicians, and handy people. Some of those passions become careers that we see on screen and in business.

I could conclude my rambling by saying that I am glad that there are non-academic paths to career-building. But that would have ignored centuries of “alternatives” like self-teaching, mentoring, and apprenticeship. I need to keep that in mind as I embark on my next work project.

The statistics claimed in this tweet and embedded video are stark. They seemed to indicate that there has been an acceptance of remote work (colloquially known as work from home or WFH here). The video interview also illustrated how much better WFH was.

Much of my work has been remote since going independent in 2014. I have been open with its pluses AND minuses. The video anecdote in the tweet only highlighted the best case of multiple revenue streams, flexible and efficient hours, and lifestyle alignment.

The tweeted narrative is selective because large swings grab eyeballs more than nuanced views. The statistic and anecdote provide an important story element, but it does not tell the whole story. A tweeted story does not have to, of course, but this stance misrepresents WFH.

That said, the statistic was remarkable (assuming it was accurate). It showed how an external pressure like the current pandemic pushes the levers of change. What might start as a necessity and evolved to be independent and effective work might eventually be adopted by employers as a norm.

Sadly, the same might not be said about online learning in school and universities. Why? I would argue that stakeholders still conflate emergency remote teaching with online learning. The tweet below highlights a general distinction between the two.

Emergency remote teaching is often a rushed and desperate attempt to recreate a physical classroom experience online. Well-designed online learning, on the other hand, factors in limitations and affordances of reduced social presence.

Neither the second tweet nor my short reflection tells the story of effective online learning. But every educator who has tried something online has a paragraph or chapter worth sharing. For example, I have shared my design plans with, use of, and reflections on Zoom.

These are stories of lessons from failures and successes during the pandemic pivot. The stories are worth telling not just because they are instructive, they also provide a counter narrative to the sensational swings presented by those making judgements from the outside.

I will admit something — I watched and enjoyed Edgar Wright movies without knowing that he had written or directed them.

But after watching a recent movie of his, Last Night In Soho, I did a deep dive. One of the gems was this collective process-and-product YouTube video.

Video source

I usually focus on the importance of gaining insights on the processes behind products and link this to education. This time, however, I noticed how Wright would state the names of his collaborators and crew.

This is a good sort of name-dropping because it gives credit where it is due instead of showing off who you know. Attributing your influencers is something else that those of us who maintain portfolios need to do more of.

I received this automated reminder in Canvas. This should be familiar to anyone who uses just about any university learning management system (LMS).

Message from Canvas admin about course removal.

Sorry, no! I am not worried that “courses will be removed” because I only use Canvas for announcements and the submission of student assignments.

I take pride in my course design and resources, so I keep them off Canvas and house them in Google Sites instead. This allows me to make incremental improvements instead of removing and reloading them at the whim of Canvas administration. 

I also received this dubious message in my Canvas inbox. It was an admin message about Turnitin service not being able for “checking of plagiarism” due to service maintenance.

Message from Canvas admin about Turnitin service not being able for "checking of plagiarism".

Sorry, no! Plagiarism cannot be detected by a machine algorithm. It takes a person to decide whether or not a student has plagiarised work. At least, it should.

Simplistic algorithms still look for matching patterns, not intent. For example, Turnitin cannot distinguish between plagiarism and legitimate quoting of someone else’s work or reference to one’s own work. The latter two are still highlighted as matches. Lazy people might call this plagiarism.

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

Turnitin is a tool. It is not a decision maker of plagiarism any more than an allen key is an assembler of IKEA furniture. We should not relegate higher order thinking and a high stakes process to a service provider.

I am a champion of edtech. But I do not blindly support the slogans, claims, or practices of edtech vendors and systems administrators. If they put convoluted administration over critical pedagogy or effective learning, I call them out.

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One of my least favourite sayings is “content is king”. This might be uttered in the context of media sales pitches.

However, it still is an insidious idea that providers of content and learning management systems (CMS and LMS) and educational portals sell to administrators and decision makers. Not only do the latter groups not realise that co-creating content is a powerful learning experience, they might ignore how content is nothing without context.

Take this example: Singapore mathematics books were sold as superior solutions in some US schools. But our names, examples, spelling, and metric measurement system are contextual barriers to learning. They had to be recontextualised for them to make sense.

Spotify source

Here is another example about the importance of context. I listened to a Daily Show With Trevor Noah: Ears Edition podcast. In the episode, Chris Hayes, an MSNBC news host, illustrated how context matters when establishing facts.

He cited two examples (starting at the 30min 44sec mark).

The first was an open repository on the after effects of COVID-19 vaccines. Reporters who wished to say that many people died after getting vaccinated could cite that content source. They misled their followers about vaccine effectiveness by excluding context, i.e., when you have millions of vaccinated people, thousands will die anyway of various causes. The context helps you question the content — you cannot claim that vaccinations result in all those deaths.

Hayes’ second example was how a racist website might feature cases on how black men — and only black men — caused crimes. That these men were guilty and charged for these crimes is factual content from official databases. However, this ignores the larger context that men of other races also committed the same crimes. Ignoring context and selling selective content is one way of stoking hate and fear.

Those examples were societal and systemic. But the principle that you cannot teach content without context should also apply in schooling and education. After all, content is drawn from context. And yet some of us in this arena still seek to decontextualise content. 

Why? My guess is that it makes teaching easier. But this also means that learning is superficial and driven by absolutes. This does not gel with a world that is nuanced and subjective. The sooner we teach students to embrace complexity, the better prepared they will be. We might start by teaching content that is anchored in meaningful and original context.

Today my random reflection was brought about by this tweet. It triggered a 25-year-old memory.

I was not a professor then but a classroom teacher subject to an annual appraisal. My then head of department behaved unethically by asking me to sign a blank appraisal form.

I was stupidly naive and blindly confident. Naive because I could have signed my death warrant if he gave me a bad review. Confident because I knew my then school principal thought highly of me.

I was a young, idealistic, and energetic teacher then. I believed that I could do no wrong and that other teachers had the same beliefs. So I signed the form.

Fortunately, nothing bad happened from that one time I signed what was effectively a blank cheque. Since then, I read the details of forms and contracts carefully before I endorse them. 

I wonder if young workers are taught things like not signing off on forms that they have not read or forms that are not complete. They might have mentors but these more experienced colleagues might take such things for granted. This would be a bad sign indeed.

If you are right-handed, would you cut off your left hand because you do not use it as much? You would not because you would rationalise that you still need your left hand.

You would argue for an AND stance (left AND right) instead of making an OR argument. If only we did that for more divisive phenomena.

In the case of schooling, the right hand is face-to-face (FTF) classrooms even through circumstances like the current pandemic. But policymakers and administrators seem adamant on avoiding the left hand of rigorous online learning [recent example].

I have reflected before on why we need schools. The reasons range from basic literacy to child care to social enculturation. I am not saying we do away with that.

I am saying that we a) learn from what works well on online learning and transfer relevant takeaways to FTF classrooms, b) learn to facilitate online better, and c) provide online options to learners who benefit from more reflective and independent work.

Example of A: Provide time and space for learners to struggle with practice while in class, i.e., do “homework” in class because support structures are present.

Example of B: Design asynchronous tasks that are not fire-and-forget, i.e., a teacher still needs to monitor and provide feedback to student inputs via reasonably scheduled blocks.

Example of C: Implement experiences that incorporate a student’s context or interests, i.e., co-construct lessons.

Things should not just go back to normal because normal is not good. We need a better normal. We get there by valuing the left hand more than we do now.


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