Monthly Archives: August 2011

Notes to Learning Analytics

The recent two day seminar on Learning Analytics, organised by the Dutch SURF academy, brought some interested parties from different education institutions and vendors together. While stimulating in its presentation, the seminar mainly presented technical showcases. What got somehow left behind were relevant pedagogic showcases and a feeling of how receptive the teaching practitioner community is to this kind of innovation. Are we running again into the old pattern of being technology driven?

Some interesting showpieces included tools to elicit what I would call educational business analytics (as opposed to learning analytics). To some extent these were not really new, as business reporting systems on student grades, drop-out figures, and the likes have existed for many years, albeit that they are mainly available to university registrars. It is not yet clear what these figures do to teaching and learning when presented to teaching staff instead of administrators, but this would be a novel approach.

Here are some notes that came to my mind while listening to the presentations:

  • LA tools are a bit like a cooking thermometer or oven thermostat. It doesn’t give you an indication of what meal a person is preparing or whether it will taste good or not, but it may be a vital (on-demand) instrument to determine the right action at the right time to get it done.

  • How do we avoid teachers being turned into controlers, sitting like Homer Simpson in front of a dashboard and control panel looking at visualisations of their students’ datasets? Does an increase in such activities reduce their contact time with students?
  • One common assumption I noted is the belief that all students are ambitious and only aim for top grades and the best learning experience. Being a father and having seen a few student generations, I contest this assumption. Many, if not most students, just want to pass. Studying isn’t in fact what they perceive as the prime focus of their lives. Tactical calculations that students are used to doing (how often can I still be absent; what’s the minimum mark I need for passing, etc.) maybe ‘prehistoric’ forms of Learning Analytics that have existed for as long as assessments have been around!

Skype offers Wifi for pennies

This could be a game changer in the data roaming business! Data roaming in Europe has been a pain to say the least. I live in a border area between Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany and frequently cross over for all kind of activities. Every time I have to take special care that my phone does not dial into a foreign data connection, else it would become quickly very expensive. Ubiquitous mobile learning, I hear you ask? – Forget it! This is a problem that I believe the US doesn’t have, where you can roam from state to state and sea to sea with the same data tarif the mobile telecom provides.

Skype now offers 1,000,000 Wifi access points at low cost from 5c – 16c per hour with unlimited data. This is a much better deal than the data transfer rates other telcos offer. The EU has long argued that data roaming is not competitively priced and the same telco charges the user x-times as much for the same service when they cross the border between EU countries. Now this offer from Skype may be the competitive offer that we all have been waiting for, and it will turn up the heat for telcos to provide a decent pricing structure. This could be a real enabler for ubiquitous mobile learning!

**Oops, I stand corrected: the Skype pricing is per minute not per hour, which, sadly, does not make the Skype offer as competitive as I mentioned! Sorry folks.

Censorship hypocrisy and net neutrality

I find it quite ironic how the UK government announces tighter controls over social networks after the recent riots in England. This comes after years of high-brow outspoken criticism of governments in the Ukraine, Iran, Egypt, etc. on their interference with free speech by trying to suppress online social communication of citizens protesting and rising up against the establishment (for different reasons). With the announcement, the West has lost the moral high ground they tried to portrait while things were running smoothly.

Without losing myself in politics, what concerns me is the picture that emerges of the Internet today and tomorrow. What can we expect when we turn to our browsers? Surely, in some dark and very secret corner, Intelligence Agencies have not only collected data about users, and created backdoor controls to large software portals like Google or Facebook which allows them to monitor our conversations. ISPs too are increasingly under pressure and forced to censor Web traffic as a recent court ruling against BT has shown. It starts with the ongoing battle on piracy, but there are actually many Websites that some people wish to disappear, e.g. Greenpeace or other activist sites, not to mention fundamentalist propaganda.

As if this wasn’t enough, leaving the Web to free market forces, challenges net neutrality through the monetary power of a handful of big players. The preferential treatment of traffic may lead to a Web where organisations with deep pockets get all the attention. Imagine where this leaves democracy, when it comes to marketing smaller political parties before an election. But it isn’t even only the browser developers or the brand companies that are the bad guys, as recent findings on search traffic hijacking show us.

What these developments indicate is that we are no longer only dependent on the secret algorithms from Google that lead us from query A to website B. More and more, our web queries bounce in unknown ways around the web with perhaps unpredictable and unexpected outcomes, monitored by data companies and intelligence services. The danger is that our web experience declines from what we want to see to what others want us to see or not to see!

MOOCs and Free Online Courses

By now it is rather well known that the introduction course to Artificial Intelligence (AI) from Stanford University has attracted an unbelievable amount of interest. As of today more than 82,000 people signed up to the free course. Time to reflect whether the recent move of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and this offering share similar features and what it all means.

Maybe it is no surprise at this point that such an offering to a world-wide public is made by the organisers of the course, but it even stunned them to see the viral response the offer received from around the world. Open Course Ware (OCW) and other open educational resources (OERs) have some decade of history behind them, and similar offers have been around for a much longer. More recently, the MOOC movement has gained some considerable momentum in the world of education with people at least in their hundreds registering, and more and more MOOCs being offered.

What is different with the Stanford AI course is that it is a traditional accredited university course that has all the hallmarks of formal education. As such, I would not call it ‘open’, but ‘free’. This is a major difference to recent MOOCs, which, appart from a rough outline syllabus, have had an open structure and very little provision, mostly in terms of moderation and fixed online presentations. In MOOCs, participants were the main movers and shakers, whereas the Stanford course has a textbook, tests, and provides real accreditation (but only to Stanford students). Here I spot the key difference. While both MOOCs and the online AI course are both free of charge and open to join for anyone, the latter I expect to be more like a broadcast experience, similar to early radio and television courses.

It still amazes why this particular subject and delivery mode would attract such a large audience, but maybe we are exaggerating the surprise factor. If we look back at the times when the BBC offered Open University courses on tv, the viewer numbers (in a single country!) may have been even bigger, despite horrible programme hours. Can 82,000 really be considered a benchmark or is it just the beginning of more and larger open education experiences?

Whatever the motivation, both for offering free worldwide online courses and for signing up to them, it has to be welcomed that education is finally opening its doors to everyone!