Virtual reality in clinical education: A research project outline

I was lucky enough to spend some time chatting with Ben Ellis from Oxford Brookes University, about the possibilities of using VR for clinical education. A decade ago virtual reality was something that only the military and high end research labs could afford. But recently, thanks to initiatives like Google’s Cardboard, Daydream and Jump, pretty good VR experiences can be created and shared for relatively low cost. The purpose of this post is to – very briefly – explore what a VR research project in clinical education might look like.

Google's Jump camera rig.
Google’s Jump camera rig.

Establish a clinical / educational problem that is difficult to address in a traditional educational context. There are many examples but the one I always think about is the undergraduate student who is working with a patient who goes into cardiac arrest. That’s a situation we can’t plan for and that no amount of theoretical study will prepare the student for. A less extreme example might be the novice student who goes into the ICU for the first time.

Highlight the learning context. I would take this in the direction that learning in these situations is about exploring the emotional response that students experience when exposed to traumatic or at least, difficult, clinical encounters. Imagine debriefing a student after a variety of controlled exposures to very challenging clinical experiences. For example, what possibilities exist for designing those experiences to introduce students into situations where they may be morally compromised?

Describe how virtual reality can be used to work on the problem. There’s enough literature to show that exposure to situations that look and sound real (i.e. have high fidelity) can lead to a visceral response from students. We could create scenarios that are impossible to plan for in the real world, and then work with students in those controlled contexts to help them learn how to respond later.

Create the VR experiences using relatively low cost gear e.g. Google’s Jump camera rig. The research proposal would budget for buying the cameras needed to create the experiences. We’d collaboratively design the experiences across departments in different countries, so that the experiences students are exposed to could be quite diverse in nature. With 2-3 camera rigs we could probably put together a small library of experiences from several different placements.

Run the project. Expose students from a variety of different departments to those simulated clinical encounters and conduct debriefing sessions afterwards. Record the sessions (obviously we’d have consent, etc. since this would be a registered research protocol) and conduct analysis on the transcriptions. Share the outcomes and responses between the collaborating institutions.

Use the interpreted data to develop a model of engagement in these contexts. Prepare a worksheet – or something like that – to enable others to prepare students in advance, guide the debriefing, etc. Publish the models on an open access repository (e.g. Physiopedia), along with the VR experiences themselves, allowing anyone with a phone to go through the same experiences.

OK, so it’s not complete and there are probably a ton of problems with the idea so far, but I wanted to get it out there as a base to work from. If you’re interested in the potential of VR in clinical education, please get in touch.

Response to an email on the use of technology in the classroom

I just received an email from someone who read my article in The Conversation, “Technology is no longer a luxury for universities – it’s a necessity“. They asked two questions and I thought I’d post my response here. The questions were:

  1. Do you think teachers have to show students how to use the software which is relevant to their major?
  2. Do you have any other reasons to explain why technology is important in class?

Here are my responses:

I do believe that teachers need to be able to show students how to use technology as part of their courses. If the technology is being used pedagogically, then it is closely tied to the way the course is taught, which means that it’s probably not going to work for the IT department to show students. When my students use technology in my courses, it’s because I want them to do it in a very specific way, because the use is tied to the objectives I want them to achieve. I also want to be able to explain why we’re using the technology. It has an advantage over other approaches and I want to be able to discuss that.

I think that using technology is important because it does 2 main things:

It enhances communication: By including technology into our channels of communication (note that I’m not suggesting that it replace other channels) we add the ability to enhance communication in ways that are difficult to do without technology. For example, adding rich media like animations, audio and video files, and images helps to convey complex ideas in addition to text or lectures.

It accelerates: adding technology simply allows us to do things faster. Instead of having to search for something on a library shelf, I can search inside books online. Instead of having to flip through pages of course notes, students can search for keywords. Instead of having to write by hand, students can type faster. Technology helps us to do things, find things, learn things, etc. more quickly than the analogue equivalent.

What do you think? Would you have answered these questions differently?

altPhysio | Technology as infrastructure

This is the fourth post in my altPhysio series, where I’m exploring alternative ways of thinking about a physiotherapy curriculum by imagining what a future school might look like. This post is a bit longer than other because this is an area I’m really interested in and spend a lot of time thinking about. I’ve also added more links to external sources because some of this stuff sounds like science fiction. The irony is that everything in this post describes technology that currently exists, and as long as we’re thinking about whether or not to share PowerPoint slide we’re not paying attention to what’s important. This post was a ton of fun to write.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the history of technology integration in health professions education? Maybe over the last decade or so.

In the early part of the 21st century we saw more institutions starting to take the integration of technology seriously. Unfortunately the primary use of digital services at the time was about moving content around more efficiently. Even though the research was saying that the content component was less important for learning than the communication component, we still saw universities using the LMS primarily to share notes and presentations with students.

The other thing is that we were always about 5-10 years behind the curve when it came to the adoption of technology. For examples, wikis started showing up in the medical education literature almost 10 years after they were invented. The same with MOOCs. I understand the need to wait and see how technologies stabilise and then choosing something that’s robust and reliable. But the challenge is that you lose out on the early mover advantages of using the technology early. That’s why we tend to adopt a startup mentality to how we use technology at altPhysio.

Q: What do you mean by that? How is altPhysio like a startup?

We pay attention to what’s on the horizon, especially the emerging technologies that have the potential to make an impact on learning in 1, 2 and 5 year time frames. We decided that we weren’t going to wait and see what technologies stabilised and would rather integrate the most advanced technologies available at the time. We designed our programme to be flexible and to adapt to change based on what’s happening around us. When the future is unknowable because technological advances are happening faster than you can anticipate, you need a system that can adapt to the situations that emerge. We can’t design a rigid curriculum that attempts to guess what the future holds. So we implement and evaluate rapidly, constantly trying out small experiments with small groups of students.

Once we decided that we’d be proactive instead of reactive in how we use and think about technology, we realised that we’d need a small team in the school who are on the lookout for technologies that have the potential to enhance the curriculum. The team consists of students and staff who identify emerging technologies before they become mainstream, prepare short reports for the rest of the school, recruit beta testers and plan small scale research projects that highlight the potential benefits and challenges of implementing the technology at scale.

We’ve found that this is a great way for students to invest themselves in their own learning, drive research in areas they are interested in, take leadership roles and manage small projects. Staff on the team act as supervisors and mentors, but in fact are often students themselves, as both groups push each other further in terms of developing insights that would not be possible working in isolation.

Q: But why the emphasis on technology in health professions education? Isn’t this programme about developing physiotherapists?

The WHO report on the use of elearning for undergraduate health professional education called for the integration of technology into the curriculum, as did the Lancet Commission report. And it wasn’t just about moving content more efficiently in the system but rather to use technology intentionally to change how we think about the curriculum and student learning. The ability to learn is increasingly mediated by digital and information literacy and we want our students’ learning potential to be maximised.

Low levels of digital literacy in the 21st century is akin to a limited ability to read and write in the past. Imagine trying to learn in the 20th century without being able to read and write? Well, that’s what it’s like trying to learn today if you don’t have a grasp of how digital technologies mediate your construction of knowledge. Integrating technology is not about adding new gadgets or figuring out how to use Facebook groups more effectively.

Technology is an infrastructure that can be used to open up and enhance student’s learning, or to limit it. Freire said that there’s no such thing as a neutral education process, and we take seriously the fact that the technologies we use have a powerful influence on students’ learning.

Q: How do you develop digital and information literacy alongside the competencies that are important for physiotherapists? Doesn’t an emphasis on technology distract students from the core curriculum?

We don’t offer “Technology” as something separate to the physiotherapy curriculum, just as you don’t offer “Pen and paper” as something that is separate. The ability to use a pen and paper used to be an integral and inseparable aspect of learning, and we’ve just moved that paradigm to now include digital and information literacy. Technology isn’t separate to learning, it’s a part of learning just like pen and paper used to be.

Digital and information literacy is integrated into everything that happens at the school. For example, when a new student registers they immediately get allocated a domain on the school servers, along with a personal URL. A digital domain of their own where they get to build out their personal learning environment. This is where they make notes, pull in additional resources like books and video, and work on their projects. It’s a complete online workspace that allows individual and collaborative work and serves as a record of their progress through the programme. It’s really important to us that students learn how to control the digital spaces that they use for learning, and that they’re able to keep control over those spaces after they graduate.

When students graduate, their personal curriculum goes with them, containing the entire curriculum (every resource we shared with them) as well as every artefact of their learning they created, and every resource that they pulled in themselves. Our students never lose the content that they aggregated over the duration of the programme, but more importantly, they never lose the network they built over that time. The learning network is by far the most important part of the programme, and includes not only the content relationships they’ve formed during the process but includes all interactions with their teachers, supervisors, clinicians and tutors.

Q: Why is it important for students to work in digital space, as well as physical space? And how do your choices about online spaces impact on students’ learning?

Think about how the configuration of physical space in a 20th century classroom dictated the nature of interactions that were possible in that space. How did the walls, desks and chairs, and the position of the lecturer determine who spoke, for example? Who moved? Who was allowed to move? How was work done in that space? Think about how concepts of “front” and “back” (in a classroom) have connotations for how we think about who sits where.

Now, how does the configuration of digital space change the nature of the interactions that are possible in that space? How we design the learning environment (digital or physical) not only enables or disables certain kinds of interactions, but it says something about how we think about learning. Choosing one kind of configuration over another articulates a set of values. For example, we value openness in the curriculum, from the licensing of our course materials, to the software we build on. This commitment to openness says something about who we are and what is important to us.

The fact that our students begin here with their own digital space – a personal learning environment – that they can configure in meaningful ways to enhance their potential for learning, sends a powerful message. Just like the physical classroom configuration changes how power is manifested, so can the digital space. Our use of technology tells students that they have power in terms of making choices with respect to their learning.

To go back to your question about the potential for technology to distract students from learning physiotherapy; did you ever think about how classrooms – the physical configuration of space – distracted students from learning? Probably not. Why not?

Q: You mentioned that openness is an important concept in the curriculum. Can you go into a bit more detail about that?

Maybe it would be best to use a specific example because there are many ways that openness can be defined. Our curriculum is an open source project that gives us the ability to be as flexible and adaptable as a 21st century curriculum needs to be. It would be impossible for us to design a curriculum that was configured for every student’s unique learning needs and that was responsive to a changing social context, so we started with a baseline structure that could be modified over time by students.

We use a GitHub repository to host and collaborate on the curriculum. Think of a unique instance of the curriculum that is the baseline version – the core – that is hosted on our servers. When a student registers, we fork that curriculum to create another, unique instance on the students personal digital domain. At this moment, the curriculum on the student’s server is an exact copy of the one we have but almost immediately, the students’ version is modified based on their personal context. For example, the entire curriculum – including all of the content associated with the programme – is translated into the student’s home language if they choose so. Now that it’s on their server, they can modify it to better suit them, using annotation and editing tools, and allowing them to integrate external resources into their learning environment.

One of the most powerful features of the system is that it allows for students to push ideas back into our core curriculum. They make changes on their own versions and if they’d like to see that change implemented across the programme, they send us a “Pull” request, which is basically a message that shows the suggested change along with a comment for why the student wants it. It’s a feedback mechanism for them to send us signals on what works well and what can be improved. It enables us to constantly refine and improve the curriculum based on real time input from students.

On top of this, every time we partner with other institutions, they can fork the curriculum and modify it to suit their context, and then push the changes back upstream. This means that the next time someone wants to partner with us, the core curriculum they can choose from is bigger and more comprehensive. For example, our curriculum is now the largest database of case studies in the world because most institutions that fork the curriculum and make their own changes also send those changes back to the core.

Q: You have a very different approach to a tutorial system. Tell us about how tutors are implemented in your school.

The tutors at altPhysio are weak AI agents – relatively simple artificial general intelligence algorithms that perform within very narrow constraints that are linked to basic tasks associated with student learning. Students “connect” with their AI tutors in the first week of the programme, which for the most part involves downloading an app onto their phones. This is then sync’d across all of their other devices and digital spaces, including laptops, wearables and cloud services, so that the AI is “present” in whatever context the student is learning.

As AI has become increasingly commoditised in the last decade, AI as a service has allowed us to take advantage of features that enhance learning. For example, a student’s tutor will help her with establishing a learning context, finding content related to that context, and reasoning through the problems that arise in the context. In addition, the AIs help students manage time on task, remind them about upcoming tasks and the associated preparation for those tasks, and generally keep them focused on their learning.

Over time the algorithms evolve with students, becoming increasingly tied to them and their own personal learning patterns. While all AI tutors begin with the same structure and function they gradually become more tightly integrated with the student. Some of the more adventurous students have had the AIs integrated with neural lace implants, which has obviously significantly accelerated their ability to function at much higher levels and at much greater speeds than the rest of us. These progressions have obviously made us think very differently about assessment, obviously.

Q: What about technology used during lectures? Is there anything different to what you’ve already mentioned?

Lectures have a different meaning here than at other institutions, and I suspect we’ll talk about that later. Anyway, during lectures the AI tutors act as interpreters for the students, performing real time translation for our international speakers, as well as doing speech-to-text transcription in real time. This means that our deaf students get all speech converted to Braille in real time, which is pretty cool. All the audio, video and text that is generated during lectures is saved, edited and sync’d to the students personal domains where they’re available for recall later.

Our students use augmented reality a lot in the classroom and clinical context, where students overlay digital information on their visual fields in order to get more context in the lecture. For example, while I’m talking about movement happening at the elbow, the student might choose to display the relevant bones, joints and muscles responsible for the movement. As the information is presented to them, they can choose to save that additional detail into the point in the lecture that I discussed it, so that when they’re watching the video of the lecture later, the additional information is included. We use this system a lot for anatomy and other movement- and structure-type classes.

microsoft-hololens-medical-studies

Q: That sounds like a pretty comprehensive overview of how technology has some important uses beyond making content easier to access. Any final thoughts?

Technology is not something that we “do”, it’s something that we “do things with”. It enables more powerful forms of communication and interaction, both in online and physical spaces, and to think of it in terms of another “platform” or “service” is to miss the point. It amplifies our ability to do things in the world and just because it’s not cheap or widely distributed today doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.

In 2007 the iPhone didn’t exist. Now every student in the university carries in their pocket a computer more powerful than the ones we used to put men on the moon. We should be more intentional about how we use that power, and forget about whatever app happens to be trending today.

 

Technology will make lecturers redundant – but only if they let it

Technology will make lecturers redundant — but only if they let it

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A teacher walks into a classroom and begins a lesson. As she speaks, the audio is translated in real time into a variety of languages that students have pre-selected, so each can hear the lecturer’s voice in their own language. It can even be delivered directly into their auditory canal so that it does not disturb other students. The lecturer’s voice is also transcribed in real-time, appearing in a display that presents digital content over the students’ visual field.

As the lesson progresses, students identify concepts they feel need further clarification. They submit highly individual queries to search engines that use artificial intelligence algorithms to filter and synthesise results from a variety of sources. This information is presented in their augmented reality system, along with the sources used, and additional detail in the form of images and animations.

microsoft-hololens-medical-studies

All of the additional information gathered by students is collated into a single set of notes for the lesson, along with video and audio recordings of the interactions. It’s then published to the class server.

This isn’t science fiction. All of the technology described here currently exists. Over time it will become more automated, economical and accurate.

What does a scenario like the one described here mean for lecturers who think that “teaching” means selecting and packaging information for students? There are many excellent theoretical reasons for why simply covering the content or “getting through the syllabus” has no place in higher education. But for the purposes of this article I’ll focus on the powerful practical reasons that lecturers who merely cover the content are on a guaranteed path to redundancy.

The future isn’t coming – it’s here

The technology described above may sound outlandish and seem totally out of most students’ reach. But consider the humble – and ubiquitous – smartphone. A decade ago, the iPhone didn’t exist. Five years ago most students in my classes at a South African university didn’t have smartphones. Today, most do. Research shows that this growth is mirrored across Africa. The first cellphones were prohibitively expensive, but now smartphones and tablets are handed out to people opening a bank account. The technology on these phones is also becoming increasingly powerful, and will continue to advance so that what is cutting edge today will be mainstream in about five years’ time.

This educational technology can change the way that university students learn. But ultimately, machines can’t replace teachers. Unless, that is, teachers are just selecting and packaging content with a view to “getting through the syllabus”. As demonstrated above, computers and algorithms are becoming increasingly adept at the filtering and synthesis of specialised information. Teachers who focus on the real role of universities – teaching students how to think deeply and critically – and who have an open mind, needn’t fear this technology.

Crucial role of universities

In a society where machines are taking over more and more of our decision-making, we must acknowledge that the value of a university is not the academics who see their work as controlling access to specialised knowledge.

Rather, it’s that higher education institutions constitute spaces that encourage in-depth investigation into the nature of the world. The best university teachers don’t just focus on content because doing so would reduce their roles to information filters who simply make decisions about what content is important to cover.

Digital tools are quickly getting to the point where algorithms will outperform experts, not only in filtering content but also in synthesising it. Teachers should embrace technology by encouraging their students to build knowledge through digital networks both within and outside the academy. That way they will never become redundant. And they’ll ensure that their graduates are critical thinkers, not just technological gurus.The Conversation

Technology is no longer a luxury for universities – it’s a necessity

This is a republication of my article on The Conversation. See bottom of the post for the link to the original.

In the world’s new knowledge economy, innovation and technological change are recognised as the primary drivers of progress. Technological and digital literacy will be a crucial part of helping many countries move beyond their reliance on material resources.

Such literacy, and an understanding of technology in general, will also be crucial for university students. They will have to develop the ability to collaborate across multiple contexts, filter and synthesise information from a variety of sources. These skills will be necessary if students are to contribute to the world in the 21st century.

We live in a world where the phone in your pocket has more processing power than the computers that were used to put men on the moon. But what is being done to make better use of the affordances of technology in higher education? Not much, unfortunately. In general, academics continue along traditional lines of thinking and practice that seem to ignore technological progress and its accelerating rate of change.

To address these challenges, higher education institutions must ask what steps they can take to ensure that their students are relevant in the future. The following suggestions may help the academy to think differently about how technology is used in the classroom.

Access is increasing

One common rationale for not bringing technology into the classroom is that access to technology is not uniformly distributed among students. This is especially true in a country like South Africa, where I teach, and on the African continent as a whole. But access to textbooks is uneven, too, and no-one would use that as a reason to ban textbooks in class.

Things are changing faster than we think. When I started teaching in 2009, incorporating technology into the classroom was challenging. Few of my students had laptops or even computers at home. We didn’t have good access to wifi in lecture halls, so we had to use the computer labs. Now every student in my classroom is encouraged to use phones, tablets and laptops to search for new information that’s relevant to our topic, and to synthesise it for sharing in our discussions. They can do so because smartphones are ubiquitous. Students can also collaboratively author course notes for the module.

The network is what matters

But merely providing access to devices does little to help students learn. Many studies still centre on access to the device, as if handing a student a tablet will magically develop the skills needed to use it effectively. It is time to change academics’ thinking to prioritise the network over the device. The device is simply a window onto the network. The United Nations weighed in on this debate in 2011 when it declared that access to the internet should be recognised as a basic human right.

There is also a shift from vertical communication channels that privilege hierarchies of control to horizontal structures – like networks – that embody coordination, cooperation and collaboration. The power of the internet is not that it provides us with new and innovative means of sharing cat videos. It is a new communication paradigm that is constructed through community engagement and participation. It allows new forms of interaction between people, information and devices.

Preparing to adapt

As technology progresses and its influence becomes clear in every aspect of society – apart from higher education – universities need to ask if the next 50 years are going to look anything like the last 50. It seems as if the most important skill people can learn is how to adapt to a constantly changing world. If this is true, then academics may need to radically change what is prioritised in the curriculum, as well as how they teach students to learn. How can academics prepare students to be successful in a world that we can’t predict?

Incorporating technology into the classroom allows academics to help students develop the skill set needed for engaging meaningfully in the 21st century. Academics cannot continue with the notion that higher education is about providing students with access to specialised knowledge. Universities and individual lecturers cannot plan curricula for the lowest common denominator in terms of digital literacy and then base teaching and learning practices on that.

The academic enterprise is about striving to upset established models and paradigms and to push for change in how we understand and work within the world around us. It is time that academics applied themselves to this task – and technology is a crucial way of doing so.

The Conversation

Michael Rowe, Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy, University of the Western Cape

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thoughts on my first article for The Conversation

I pitched 3 ideas for articles to The Conversation: Africa at the end of last year, one of which was picked up to develop and publish. A few days ago I gave the go-ahead for it to be published and am happy to report that it is live. It’s called Technology is no longer a luxury for universities – It’s a necessity. My original title was a William Gibson quote: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” but I gather the editor decided on something more accessible.

There are a few things that were different to what I was expecting, in particular the amount of input that the editor provides. I was expecting something more like critical feedback in the peer review process but it was actually more like having a co-author at times. This worked out well for me since I didn’t want to feel like I had to put in the same amount of time that I would for an academic paper. It was nice to have someone else try out the ideas and to actually make the changes to the article.

I was also surprised that the editor selected the header image. When I’m blogging I’m used to spending a bit of time trying to find a good picture that works with the post, so it was strange to see the final article with an image already included. This is both positive and negative. Positive because I didn’t have to spend the time finding a graphic with the right permissions (I suppose this is the main reason the editor takes on this responsibility), and negative because I may not like the selected picture, although this is obviously something that can be discussed.

All in all, I enjoyed the process, especially the very quick turnaround time from the initial submission of the idea to the final publication, which would have been even quicker had we not had the #FeesMustFall movement at the end of 2015. I am also impressed at the reach of the publication, which you can see in the screenshot below. That’s not bad considering it was only published this morning. Finally, The Conversation makes it very simple to republish articles on your own site – providing the source code for the piece – which you can copy into your own blogging platform. I’ll be doing that in my next post on this blog.

The Conversation 2016-01-12 10-53-04

 

Without anyones permission: The open web and online learning

As teaching and learning activities move into online and blended learning environments we need to think carefully about how we use those spaces, which is often determined by the features of the platforms and services we choose. One topic in the field on online learning that’s been getting a lot of attention, is the MOOC (the New York Times declared 2013 the year of the MOOC). However, for all the rhetoric about how MOOCs are disrupting higher education, we have yet to see any strong evidence that they lead to any kind of improved learning, and we are slowly starting to realise that “MOOCs are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with high quality qualifications.” In other words, if you don’t already have a good foundation upon which to build, the promise of MOOCs seems to be an empty one.

One of the reasons that disruption is difficult to apply to the mainstream MOOC phenomenon is that – for all intents and purposes – these MOOCs (specifically, xMOOCs) are not doing anything particularly innovative. They reproduce distance learning models that have existed for decades and moreover, they do so less well. This post will focus on the Open aspect of xMOOCs – in particular how they are anything but open – and to discuss some of the ways that educators need to think differently about how we use the web in our teaching practice.

The majority of xMOOC providers design their courses using non-open formats and use restrictive content licenses preventing reuse and sharing of the content and learning experiences. These MOOC providers are fencing in and closing off the educational experience, while at the same time preaching openness and enhanced accessibility. This loss of openness in online learning – as it is conceived by the major xMOOC providers – is, according to some, a horrific corruption, as more and more of our learning experiences are controlled by organisations that dictate the direction that online and blended learning is taking. Which brings me back to the idea that started this post; if we are going to move teaching and learning into online environments it is important for us to understand the environment that we’re moving to. We need to remember that when we talk about online learning, we should be talking about learning on the web. Not learning on an app, or on Coursera, or on Facebook. And therein lies the problem:

This isn’t our web today. We’ve lost key features that we used to rely on, and worse, we’ve abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world. To the credit of today’s social networks, they’ve brought in hundreds of millions of new participants to these networks, and they’ve certainly made a small number of people rich. But they haven’t shown the web itself the respect and care it deserves, as a medium which has enabled them to succeed. And they’ve now narrowed the possibilities of the web for an entire generation of users who don’t realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.

Anil Dash

Maybe we need to reclaim online learning for what it is and what it represents. The open source movement has provided the tools we need to build our own (open) online courses, so what exactly do we need Coursera and Udacity for? As we give up more and more (or, as platform providers take more and more?), we must remain cognisant of what it is that we’re losing. The restrictive licensing requirements of most xMOOC providers has shown that we – the people doing the teaching – need to take the online learning environment back, eliminating (or at least reducing) our reliance on convenient platforms that do more to impoverish the learning experience than enhance it. We can provide an open online learning experience while at the same time enabling a culture of democratized, permission-less innovation in education.

We need to remember that delivering mass media is the least of the Net’s powers.
The Net’s super-power is connection without permission. Its almighty power is that we can make of it whatever we want.

We, the People of the Internet, need to remember the glory of its revelation so that we reclaim it now in the name of what it truly is.

No one owns that place. Everybody can use it. Anyone can improve it.

Doc Searles – New Clues

Anil Dash described how we lost the web and then followed up with how to rebuild the web we lost, highlighting the utility of the open web to enable transformative change in the world. The web as an open platform for creative expression and unfettered communication is slowly being eroded and replaced by gilded cages. As the services we champion make it more difficult to move content into and out of, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to create connections between people and ideas in open online spaces. Sure, if you want to do everything in Facebook, then Facebook works. But just try taking something out of Facebook to use somewhere else.

We get bullshit turf battles like Tumblr not being able to find your Twitter friends or Facebook not letting Instagram photos show up on Twitter because of giant companies pursuing their agendas instead of collaborating in a way that would serve users. And we get a generation of entrepreneurs encouraged to make more narrow-minded, web-hostile products like these because it continues to make a small number of wealthy people even more wealthy, instead of letting lots of people build innovative new opportunities for themselves on top of the web itself.

Anil Dash

In his post about rebuilding the web we lost, Anil made the following suggestions for taking back the open web, which I’ve repurposed here in an online learning context. I’m sure that my take on it isn’t perfect, and I’d be happy to hear any other interpretations.

  1. Take responsibility and accept blame. This is our fault. Educators have allowed companies like Coursea / Udacity / Future Learn to take over and drive the online learning agenda. We did this because we didn’t understand what the web was and how we could build enriching educational experiences with it. Instead of embracing the web, we’ve spent the past few decades demonising it. We blame it for increases in cheating, lower levels of critical thinking, and encouraging lazy approaches to student work. Just think of all the rants about why students shouldn’t use Wikipedia, instead of taking on the challenge of making Wikipedia as good as it could possibly be. Educators and students could have used the platform in ways that would have improved the content of the site, while also helping students to develop important 21st century skills that are not covered in the formal curriculum. We dropped the ball, and now we need to ask what we’re going to do about it.
  2. Don’t just meet the UX standards, raise the bar. Coursera, Future Learn, Udacity, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest are all beautifully designed. They have great websites and come with user-friendly mobile apps, and we marvel at how easy they are to use. They must be wonderful places for learning. All we have to do is provide the content. But is that all there is to learning? Pre-packaged collections of readings, with no opportunities to empower students as part of that process? High quality, well-produced video lectures that students can’t download? Forum discussion boards that were also boring in the 90s? Why do we put up with it? Because it’s pretty? We can do better.
  3. Rethink funding fundamentals. If we want to move the learning experience into online spaces – and with it, open up access to education that xMOOCs so proudly take credit for – we must rethink how we are going to fund the development of those experiences. Is it realistic for individual lecturers to try and manage courses with thousands of students? Does everyone understand that Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and every other social network that exists does so in order to make a profit for their shareholders or their founders. These are companies designed to make money, not enhance learning. We will need to come up with different ways of funding large-scale online education if we are going to take it seriously.
  4. Explore architectural changes. The ability to manage enormous numbers of users used to require banks of servers and the installation of costly database software. Now you can get the same functionality as a service, either from Amazon (AWS) or a range of other providers. Cloud-based storage providers (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc.) provide hosting and collaborative editing of files – largely for free – that just a few years ago would have been prohibitively expensive. By making use of free or cheap services, we can reproduce platforms that previously would have been impossible or very expensive. Changes in how software and services are offered provide new opportunities for growth and innovation. We need to not only be aware of these services but to think carefully about how we can use them in ways that are truly disruptive.
  5. Exploit their weakness: Insularity. Be sceptical of those who tell us that This New Thing is open in any sense of the word, other than open = free. But even the use of “free” in this context means simply “without cost”, and is dissociated from the freedoms we have come to expect with the web. Instead of looking to the big institutions for guidance – and therefore falling prey to their limited perspectives – we must establish collaborations outside of the walled gardens of closed online learning environments.
  6. Don’t trust the trade press. Stop believing everything that the mainstream media tells you is true. “MOOCs are disrupting higher education”; only…they’re not. Not yet, and certainly not by the Coursera’s of the world. It is essential that teachers, principals, students, parents and every other stakeholder involved in learning educates themselves on what the web is, and how it evolved to become what it is. It’s only by knowing what we’re losing that we can take steps to reclaim it. Even as the mainstream media and uncritical academics proclaim the disruption and end of traditional models of higher education due to the emergence of whatever is trending on Twitter, we must maintain a critical perspective in how we design our online learning experiences.
  7. Create public spaces. Think about this; almost every online space where you can currently assemble large groups of people is privately owned. Facebook, Google+, Instagram…there are no truly open and public spaces where we can engage in public performances, at least not in any real numbers. This holds true for educational online spaces too; Coursera, Udacity, EdX, Canvas. All are privately held and all exist to make a profit. Where are the open spaces that position learning as a public good? Other than a few marginalised experiments like Wikiversity it’s difficult to point out a truly open learning environment. It seems that if this is something that we want – that we value – we are going to have to build it ourselves.

While this list isn’t perfect – it was written for a different context – I think it gives us some ideas about how we can think differently about moving education into online and blended learning spaces. It’s not enough to simply add online to our teaching and learning activities, and think that we’re changing anything. We need to stop doing “business as usual”. The mainstream xMOOC providers offer little more than structured collections of content, well-produced video lectures and extremely limited forms of engagement. There is nothing fundamentally innovative about this approach, nor does it have any pedagogical foundations to support learning. The promise of technology – and the web – in teaching and learning is not simply to reproduce a poorer version of the classroom experience. We need to ask who is setting the online learning agenda and whether or not we are comfortable with that (hint, the correct answer is “No”).

Open source software has given us the tools to create sophisticated online spaces for learning – all we have to do is learn how to use them. We would be asking no more of ourselves than we ask of our students every day i.e. to push ourselves to learn something new; to make a difference in the world. As long as we’re performing in closed spaces, we are disempowering our students and colleagues, preventing them from participating in educational experiences that are liberating and that develop a sense of agency.

Stephen Downes offers us four principles of open and networked learning via the theory of Connectivism – principles that could be useful in our designs for online learning experiences. We could do worse than these concepts when it comes to interrogating what kinds of online platforms we use, and how we use them. It would be an enlightening experiment to take an honest look at our learning spaces – online and physical – and ask if they encourage and facilitate the development of these concepts:

  • Autonomy:  Learners should have the ability to choose where, when, how, what and with whom to learn
  • Diversity: Learners represent sufficiently diverse populations to avoid group-think and “echo-chambers”
  • Openness: The learning environment accommodates all levels of engagement, with no
    barriers between ‘in’ and ‘out’, helping to ensure the free flow of information through the network, and encouraging a culture of sharing
  • Connectedness: “Connectedness” and interactivity is what makes all this possible, as knowledge emerges through the connections that learners make

At the risk of sounding like an uncritical fanboy, I’m well aware that the web is not the panacea we sometimes make it out to be. The presentation below – given at the 2014 meeting of The Network – Towards Unity for Health, in Fortaleza – was largely inspired by the ideas presented here, and highlights the challenges with online and blended learning, especially when we are uncritical about what we use and why.

 

This uncritical perspective is most evident than when we talk about the web. We speak about it as a discrete entity, something defined, bounded and imbued with a set of characteristics that is inherently Good. The web positioned as the solution to our many educational problems is somewhat the essence of the xMOOC contingent, and most solutions to the “education problem” that emerge from Silicon Valley. Evgeny Morozov has suggested that our tendency to look to the internet as the solution to everything is problematic, calling it the “quasi-religion” of “Internet-centrism” where Internet-centrism views the internet as being inherently special. As educators responsible for using the web and it’s features to our advantage, we must ensure that we are cognisant of both it’s utility and potential for harm (or, at the very least, it’s potential for ineffectiveness). Taking a critical position – one of the roles of academics in society – allows us to see mainstream xMOOCs for what they really are: impoverished walled gardens that diminish the learning experience. Learners are treated as users, content is viewed as knowledge, and the learning interaction is regarded as linear and subject to control. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The internet is essentially a set of agreements (protocols) that tell us how to write a page that can link to any other page without needing anyone’s permission. Without needing anyone’s permission. Without having to ask if it is OK. Without needing to login. Without needing to share our personal information. Without giving up our content through resrictive licensing requirements. “Every link by a person with something to say is an act of generosity and selflessness, bidding our readers to leave the page to see how the world looks to someone else.” When we construct our learning experiences behind closed doors, hiding our interactions inside platforms and apps that we can’t make real choices about, we give up something.  As we continue to move teaching and learning into spaces like Facebook – because it’s “where the students are” – we cede our autonomy and ability to make real choices about how we teach and how students learn. We change our teaching practices, not because it is in the students’ best interest, but because it is all that we are allowed to do.

We all love our shiny apps, even when they’re sealed as tight as a Moon base. But put all the closed apps in the world together and you have a pile of apps.
Put all the Web pages together and you have a new world.
Web pages are about connecting. Apps are about control.
As we move from the Web to an app-based world, we lose the commons we were building together.
In the Kingdom of Apps, we are users, not makers.
Every new page makes the Web bigger. Every new link makes the Web richer.
Every new app gives us something else to do on the bus.

New Clues

The digital divide is not about physical access

Just a few thoughts after reading The digital divide is shifting, but is it for the better? (by Christina Costa)

In the debate about the digital divide, it’s no longer enough to differentiate between those who have access and those who don’t. It is increasingly clear that it’s not enough to have physical access to technology (hardware, software or networks). If you want to enable equal participation in the digital world (and today, what isn’t included in the digital world?), you must develop epistemological access alongside physical access.

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Lowering the cost of access might get a connected device into everyone’s hands, but if the way you use technology is not strategically aimed at improving your life (for example, through the intentional use of information for personal or professional development), the digital divide will continue to grow.

To possess the machines, [they] only need economic capital; [but] to appropriate them and use them in accordance with their specific purpose [they] must have access to embodied cultural capital, either in person or by proxy.

Bourdieu (1986)

Bourdieu, P. (1986). Forms of Capital. In Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241–58). Greenwood Press.

Developing digital literacy and citizenship

This post was inspired by Teaching Respect and Responsibility – Even to Digital Natives, by Holly Korbey. It has been cross-posted at Unteaching.

When I talk to colleagues about the possibility of bringing computers and the internet into their classrooms, I often feel a sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt enter the conversation. They worry that their students, when allowed the opportunity to use computers, will be unable to avoid the distractions that come with them. I try to argue that, instead of distracting the students, we can use these as opportunities to teach them how to create their own boundaries and enhance their learning. Using computers as an integrated part of the lesson can help them learn how to trust and respect technology, and to use it responsibly.

While the basic tenets of digital citizenship attempt to protect kids from cyberbullying, misconduct, and harassment, Allen is also interested in teaching the positive behaviors that will make successful students and workers for the future: teaching students how to find and analyze reliable sources for research, how to verify whether information is biased and/or credible, and how to be a responsible user.

Let your students bring their devices into the classroom, and then show them how to use those devices to add value to their learning. Ask an ambiguous question and see who can find the most interesting answer. Create a shared Google Document and develop a policy or set of guidelines collaboratively. Ask them to use Twitter to create bite-sized summaries of the lesson. Have them record your lecture on their phones and upload it to a private channel on YouTube. There are many ways to have them enhance the time in the classroom in ways that add value to their learning, rather than being a distraction.

understand that a computer is a neutral object — it all depends on how students use it. A personal computer and smartphone are not to be taken lightly, and he said, “Mistakes have to happen, but patterns of mistakes are no longer mistakes, but habits.”

If your students are bored with the class and using their computers for purposes other than the learning activity, then you should ask why they’re distracted. If you want your students to pay attention to you, then you should be worth paying attention to. Banning computers in class isn’t the answer but using them creatively will not only make your classes more interesting, but will help students to develop a digital identity. Over time, you can use classroom activities to help them develop appropriate online practices and behaviours as they move towards being responsible digital citizens.

Skills we want our students to have

wood_carver-573x341This post was inspired in part by this article on the 10 skills that every student should learn. These are some of the skills that we’re intentionally trying to help our students develop, as a way of integrating them into the culture of professional clinical practice.

  1. Reading carefully. If you can read you can learn anything, it is the gateway to all knowledge.
  2. Touch type. Not being able to type is the modern equivalent of not being able to write.
  3. Write persuasively by developing and supporting arguments with evidence. Our students must develop the skill of communicating in the language of the profession. Writing also means being able to structure their work, because there is meaning in structure. It helps to develop logical thinking, beginning with an introduction, developing the argument, and concluding it. Drafting is an important means of refining their understanding, and discarding ideas that don’t fit. Simplify the sentence so that it conveys only what is necessary. Being concise and clear in presenting their thoughts.
  4. Conduct research. Identify missing knowledge or information. Question everything. For everything that they do or say, they need to have a reason. Why do a grade 3 and not a grade 4 mobilisation? Why at L3 and not at L5? Why stretch the soleus and not the gastrocnemius? A healthy skepticism should inform their learning. Think like scientists. Be comfortable saying: “I don’t understand, can you explain that again?”. Developing their own questions as a way of finding answers to fill in gaps in their own knowledge. Challenge authority. Question the way that the world is (or the way it is presented to you) with the intention of figuring out ways to make it better.
  5. Use technology as part of their learning environment. Developing skills in managing information. Searching, filtering, aggregating, summarising, synthesising, and sharing information. Identifying credibility in a source. Know when to stop looking.
  6. Collaborate. Working together to solve complex problems.
  7. Accountability. Make a statement of belief, backing it up with evidence. Stand by your statement. Commit to it.
  8. Care. Care about what you’re learning. Care about doing your best.

I’m sure that I could carry on with this list, seeing that there are clearly many other skills that we aim to develop. But for now, I think that this is a useful point at which to pause and reflect.