Monthly Archives: May 2011

Some research questions for mobile learning

Mobile technologies change the ways we learn, work, and play. One day, they may fully replace stationary computer systems, at least in everyday activities. If we see mobile developments as a trajectory for the transition from stationary computing to fully flexible, nomadic, mobile computing, a number of challenges present themselves. These challenges lead to research questions we need to address:

Fragmentation is one of the challenges across all three perspectives. It encompasses the management and orchestration of fragmented infoscapes, learning networks, pedagogic strategies, and technical devices. The management of these environments is typically driven by user preferences, either individually, or by inter-personal consensus. The research question we derive from this, is how we can better bridge fragmented mobile environments to achieve more effective learning.

A consequence of fragmentation is distraction and interrupts. This is typically caused by having too many devices or activities on standby and alert. Monitoring a variety of information channels, receiving alerts, and the constant anxiety of missing the all-important
information, leads to information overload and distress. We need to ask ourselves what filter mechanisms can be developed and used to reduce this cognitive attention load.

Mobile devices encompass an increasing number of data sensors that allow for environmental perception never before experienced. There is great opportunity in this data, but also a number of issues (mainly relating to privacy and ownership). Exploiting the data produced by mobile devices and applications for learning analytics should become a priority for investigation. This would include automated context analysis and interaction monitoring. In my view this could lead to innovative approaches for personalisation and prediction.


Are privacy breaches about learning?

If you think a dictionary is a safe learning tool, think again! The Wall Street Journal’s “What they know” series exposed as one of the worst offenders in terms of people’s privacy.

Should we be surprised? Maybe not. If you entertain a web presence yourself and work hard on attracting an audience, you probably understand the value of these analytics. It does not necessarily always have to do with revenue creation from marketing companies. Many websites (like this one) are small, personal, and not-for-profit. Analytics help to see the impact that a site makes in the big wide world. It’s about learning – learning about your visitors, and positioning yourself.

Looking at user tracking not from an advertising perspective but from the angle of corporate learning, should we not applaud the eagerness with which companies want to know more about their customers and visitors? Sure, they could use questionnaires and other traditional methods, but as with Learning Analytics more authentic information lies in the data.

cookie warningWe are caught in a dilemma. On 25 May 2011, a new EU directive on cookies came into force, which requires explicit consent by users before placing cookies. This has received much criticism, while actually aiming to protect citizens. Originally, such consent was given via the browser software (where you could also turn off cookies completely), but as the case shows the issue has grown out of proportion.

On the corporate learning front mentioned above, the directive will make a difference in that a company can no longer assume that the tracking data collected reflects all users of the site, but only those “subscribing” to it. How useful such data will prove remains to be seen. We may see similar limitations imposed on Learning Analytics data.

What is needed is a balance between the use of data and the exploit of privacy. We are still far away from any acceptable solution to serve both ends of the data economy. I have no objections about first party cookies (yellow strands on the above graph). These support the company directly in learning from their visitors and clients, which leads to better services. But it’s an entirely different matter altogether selling information to unknown third parties (blue strands) behind the user’s back.

PS: I’ll be using from now on.

OERs and the University

I just returned from an expert workshop on Open Educational Resources (OER) in Graz, Austria. Gráinne Conole, Sandra Schön, and I gave the keynote presentations. The event explored the changing landscape that OERs are now facing. After 10 years of open course ware, we are now faced with a multitude of concepts entitled ‘open’ something or other, which leads to some confusion among universities and stakeholders.

Opening of OER expert meeting

Openness means different things, and poses substantial challenges to the education system and to publicly funded institutions. The biggest of these perhaps is the increasingly dichotomous internal struggle faced by institutions where HEIs are expected to be open, transparent, and accessible, and at the same time requires them to be protective of their constituency and engage in competitive battles with peer institutions, private education providers, and the wider economy at large.

The question arises, whether the concepts of a highly competitive global knowledge economy and those of global openness are mutually exclusive or whether institutions can balance these in their favour and for the benefit of wider society.

In my keynote, I highlighted some of the issues that lie beneath the surface, leading to tensions in and around the education system in its quest to move from subsistence to sustainability. I also touched upon the search for business models that are compatible with the demands put to institutions and that can perhaps secure their longer term future. My presentation slides are available on slideshare.

Learning Analytics framework

Slowly, a common understanding of Learning Analytics is evolving. George Siemens’ definition is the following:

Learning analytics is the use of intelligent data, learner-produced data, and analysis models to discover information and social connections, and to predict and advise on learning

My view is generally in accordance with this. To me, Learning Analytics is a way to take advantage of available educational datasets for the discovery of new insights into educational practice and the development of new educational services that support the goals and objectives of learners, teachers, and institutions. Unlike other people, I feel that Learning Analytics serves reflection as much as prediction.

The careful design of Learning Analytics approaches needs to take a number of different perspectives, so I started to draw up a first framework diagramme that takes these into account. This is only a first draft, but I hope to develop it further as our knowledge and experience increases. Feel free to elaborate further, and I am, of course, happy to have feedback on this.

Click on the image to enlarge

Critical soft issues that I perceive in the exploitation of educational datasets for Learning Analytics, are the competences to interpret, critically evaluate, and derive conclusions (and pedagogic actions) from the analysis. A holistic perspective is essential, because what’s left out of the data coverage is as important as what is in.

Privacy issues aside, which are a legal constraint, I see a number of ethical issues connected with accessing learner data. There’s the issue that some teachers might abuse Learning Analytics as a means for policing and surveyance rather than a support tool. The same could perhaps be said when it comes to institutions gaining insights into teacher performances. The danger being that innovative and creative teaching might be ousted because it does not show up as falling into line with the ‘traditional’ algorithmic performance. As such the data might easily be abused to exercise certain pressures upon the data constitutency.

Dummy computing and intelligent households

Two announcements at the Google developer conference made the rounds today: Android@home and Chromebooks are the Google vision of the future.

Chromebooks are basically dummy portable computers or tablets that do not have an operating system but run on the Chrome browser. This means you turn on the computer and it’s immediately on the net. According to Google this makes security issues, antivirus updates, data loss etc. a thing of the past. With thin-client technology like Citrix one could have a full desktop environment in a browser and everyone will be learning, working and playing in the Cloud.

So this sounds interesting, but! A natural born skeptic, I am waiting to see what this means in reality. For one thing, there is the anticipated cost of cloud computing: Doing everything on the web weighs in heavy on the charges for data transfer (add to these the extortionate roaming costs). There are payments for cloud services, and there is no guarantee that online office offerings like Zoho or Google Docs will stay free – especially, when users are trapped on the Web without alternative. Finally, you would have to handover your content to some company or other – in order to have access to it, e.g. your digicam photos and videos.

Google is probably right that it will bring down the cost of computing dramatically, and this would benefit learners from economically challenged backgrounds and the Third World. But does it also mean that when students use such computers in education, all their data is first passed to Google HQ, before it reaches the teacher? In the protective and fragile privacy environment that universities and schools operate in, this would be a stark violation of principles, which, at present, I cannot see happen.

A similar line of argument can be made for Android@home, which aims to equip ordinary household goods with internet-enabled intelligence and control. According to the news, this would lead to being able to operate the heating or lighting systems and other appliances remotely. The coolness factor aside, again privacy is the main concern: Imagine the sheer amount of data Google and others would be able to gather from every household and their inhabitants behaviour. And who do you call when the dish washer isn’t working – the plumber or the IT hotline?

Lessons from offline learning

This may sound counter-intuitive from a person living and breathing online learning, but it is good for looking at what could still be improved in e-learning.

When did YOU last attend a chalk and board course? I had the pleasure of following a ten week evening class, with no other technology than a CD-player! Yes, there was the blackboard (not the VLE!), there was chalk, there was a physical teacher and fellow students sitting at a desk.

Let me repeat this for clarity: it was a pleasure! I thoroughly enjoyed it and not only because it was a change from the usual things I do, or because I got a retro feeling.

Upon reflection, one of the things I enjoyed most over online learning experiences was the feeling of undistracted belonging. There was a dedicated time of the week (Mondays and Wednesdays 6-9 p.m.) where we shut ourselves off from our worldly surroundings and did nothing but focus on our learning – no e-mail or phone interruptions, no other browser windows, no family entertainment, no servicing the tea kettle, no button where we could switch the course off any time we wanted.

Don’t get this wrong, I like flexibility, but when flexibility means fragmentation of time and spreading my attention to more things than I can chew, I find it ineffective for learning.

Another joy was the bonding and social ties that went beyond the course itself. Interestingly, the evening class consisted entirely of professionals, most of them doing some or other computer-enhanced day job. Despite all the social tools we now have online, they are still only ‘technology’ whence social connectedness is ‘technology-mediated’. This is different to sitting in the classroom together. What’s different? In a physical environment you have e.g. the opportunity for situated humor or for impromptu remarks and support. This can make you popular or unpopular with your peers, but it definitely has an effect on the social fabric of the group. In the beginning of the course, I was the only one to spend the break in the cafeteria – by the end it has become a ritual that everyone gathered there and chatted about things unrelated to the course itself.

Yes, I sometimes thought that various technologies could have been used (powerpoint slides, projector, etc.) to spice up the delivery, but what counted in the end was the satisfying feeling of benefiting from the course, both in terms of learning and in terms of socialising.

Communities of Practice are different today

Communities of Practice (CoP) by Lave and Wenger (1991) are a well-recognised theoretical construct about expertise and learning. But it is built around individuals in an unconstrained space, and this is now less and less the reality. In CoPs learning paths and expertise building assume individual drivers and freedom in decision making or participation. Here are four reasons why this needs to be reviewed again:

1) CoP peripherality versus team skill models
CoP theory states that people gradually develop expertise and move along a learning path from the periphery toward the centre as they develop their expertise and membership in the community. The more central a person is in the community, the more expertise they possess. However, in collaborative situations, each member of a CoP typically works in their own sphere. This maybe based on their personal strength or dictated by circumstances (human resource requirements). Belbin’s team role model distinguishes 3 categories of roles, oriented towards actions, people, or thoughts, with three levels each. If your role in the team is ‘resource investigator’ you will develop a different expertise than as a ‘specialist’ or a ‘monitor/evaluator’.

2) Complementarity
Team working is most effective when the team composition is based on complementarity. Expertise then lies in the right connection and chemistry, not in the individual.  A teacher plus an IT expert together may be more central to a CoP in e-learning then each of them individually.

3) Social recognition
It has to be said that expertise is not easily attributable to popularity in a network. Social recognition may mostly be based on personal marketing skills and efforts rather than domain knowledge or expertise. Additionally, certain domain standards (e.g. number of publications) may actually distract from expertise. A common pattern is the expectation that members of CoPs simply fall in line and “play the game” and, therefore, become accepted experts. This may lead to the phenomenon of mutually enforcing recognition leading to a false hype. …hey, and everyone in TEL is on Facebook now!

4) Participation does not equate to expertise
Likewise, social currency of expertise cannot be measured by verboseness of people in a community, but should take into account demand and requests from others. Despite of the Twitter phenomenon that the more nonsense you publish the more followers you will have, I don’t think this is a learning path to follow.

Why Facebook is not suited for learning

Recall and memory are vital parts of learning. If you only have a vague memory of something, you need to revisit the source of information. And this is where Facebook fails.

Facebook is very much a stream service that lives in the present with extremely limited access to the past. The philosophy behind this is “read it and forget it”, which is fine when you’re only following latest happenings and then drop the subject. However, despite the earlier hype around Facebook’s new messaging system that claimed to preserve people’s messages “forever” this has not materialised for the users.

Facebook may store your messages forever, and even sell information on to third parties, but it does not provide easy access to the message owners. The search function in Facebook is simply abysmal. Typing in ‘ebooks’ returned a paragraph from Wikipedia. Looking for a posting I made earlier, returned a negative result:

And yet, here it was only a short time ago:

Facebook posting

To be fair, searching short status messages as are used in Facebook or Twitter isn’t easy. The text limitations are such that people have to restrict the semantic message to a minimum, there are no meta-tags or even titles to search for. And no-one is likely to enter “” into the search box to be able to find an item.

There is also no hording place or personal archive where to collect interesting infos or messages – like Twitter favorites. This lack of information management reduces Facebook to what it was originally intended for – a social chat engine!