Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dinosaurs are out there

In my role, I am often required to assess units and courses from other universities, either for our students to study abroad, or as part of an advanced-standing application from a student who is transferring to our course. As part of this process, I receive copies of unit and course outlines from universities all over the world, and the content often amazes me. Take the following three examples that crossed my desk this week, all from well-respected universities in the USA:

  • Turn off cell phones and other electronic devices during the class period. Any class disturbances caused by these devices will result in significantly reduced CAPP points.

  • CLASS ETIQUETTE: During the class time you will have my undivided attention... and I expect similar consideration and professionalism from you. Reading newspapers, using cell phones, using laptops for anything other than taking notes will not be accepted. I reserve the right to ask any members who exhibit such behaviour to leave the class.

  • The use of laptop computers for taking notes in class is permitted. Do not use your computer for email, instant messaging, work in other courses, personal projects, or surfing the internet. Doing so will be considered a violation of course etiquette, and serious CAPP points will be deducted.
What do these "rules" say about those who wrote them? Why is technology seen as an evil distraction to learning? These narrow-minded professors, who obviously feel threatened by today's ubiquitous technology, are creating a learning environment which is completely foreign and uninviting to their students, devoid of any interaction, information exchange and interest.

My advice to the "dinosaurs": Your students no longer want to just sit and listen to you. They want to interact, to contribute, to discuss, and to explore. And they want to do all of this using their tools and methods, not your archaic ones. You are no longer the sole source of information, no longer the only way that they can learn. Maybe change is a better alternative than extinction?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wikipedia and information literacy

I am constantly hearing my colleagues criticise Wikipedia, expressing their disbelief that students would use such an "unreliable and innacurate source of information" when preparing an assignment or essay.

As teachers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our students are using all of the information sources available to them in an appropriate manner. Wikipedia can be, and should be, a very powerful tool to teach information literacy. Why? Because as an information repository, Wikipedia is:

  • huge, and growing;
  • the most complete single source of information on the planet;
  • and it's incredibly up-to-date.
Here's a partial screenshot of the Wikipedia entry for Qantas earlier today, a few hours after it was announced that they were in merger talks with British Airways:

Up to date? Yes. Relevant? Yes. Accurate? Maybe! But we shouldn't be the ones to tell our students that it's not accurate. If they are independent, information literate learners, then they will be quite capable to make that decision themselves after conducting further research on the topic. And if, after conducting that research, the student finds inaccuracies in Wikipedia, then they should be encouraged to correct the entry.

I am not suggesting that Wikipedia should be the primary reference within a written piece of academic work, but it is certainly an ideal starting point for a student when researching a topic.

Are you still not convinced? Spend some time investigating the "History" and "Discussion" tabs for any entry, or contribute (or correct an inaccuracy) in Wikipedia yourself. You'll soon begin to appreciate the value of a "crowd-sourced" publication, and how it can contribute to critical thinking and information literacy amongst our students.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Learning in virtual worlds

I am currently not permitted to access Second Life (SL) from the computer on the desk in my office. Similarly, my students are not able to access SL in our computer labs. Why? I have been given three different explanations:
  1. "SL is an IT security risk";
  2. "SL is full of sex and violence, and we don't want to be involved in that";
  3. "SL is only a game".
Unfortunately this narrow-mindedness is not uncommon, particularly in large educational institutions, where administrators are driven by factors unknown to those of us striving for an improved learning experience for our students.

But there are some who have the foresight to understand the benefits of learning in virtual worlds. Dr Alan Finkel, Monash University's Chancellor, spoke about SL in his plenary lecture at the recent Australian Universities International Alumni Convention in Singapore: "The biggest mistake of all would be to dismiss Second Life as a toy... these virtual worlds are an opportunity, not a distraction."

Despite the restrictions, I've spent a lot of time in Second Life at home, assisting with the development of Monash Island, providing support during an in-world conference, and collaborating with others as I learn about education in online virtual worlds. The experience has been eye-opening, and I have personally seen the benefits. My work in this area has resulted in my involvement with a new undergraduate unit in 2009 - Digital Selves.

So, virtual worlds are likely to be part of our future, and they will certainly play an increasingly important role in education. As Dr Finkel says, "Can you imagine the new ways of using technology that educators will develop over the next fifty years? It is a certainty that students will be privileged to enjoy an immersive educational experience that is far better than what you and I experienced and indeed, far better than what we can currently imagine."

Friday, November 28, 2008

What can we learn from video games?

Recently I spent some time playing Guitar Hero on Playstation... and I've been thinking about my experience. You know how it works: fire up the game, and one of your first tasks is to select the difficulty level: Easy, Medium, Hard,  or Expert.

Having never played the game previously, I foolishly selected "Expert" mode - surely a kid's game like this would be easy for me? However, one minute of absolute frustration at this level and it was time to start again - this time in "Easy" mode. All went well at first, but after ten minutes I was getting bored. It wasn't challenging enough, and I wasn't having much fun. Eventually I settled into "Medium" mode, and an hour or two later I was still enjoying myself - I was clearly in a state of flow.

What can we learn from Guitar Hero, and other video games? As Vygotsky suggests, we should aim for an appropriate level of difficulty in our teaching and learning activities, ensuring that learning outcomes are reasonably achievable without being boring, but enjoyably challenging without being frustrating.

This approach should apply across all aspects of our course design: content, assessment, workload and time commitment should all be built around the learning needs of our students... and we shouldn't be afraid to challenge them!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Digital brains

The world is changing, and education has to change too.

Marc Prensky, in his often-cited paper Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (2001), tells us that "today's learners are different", and "... unless we want to just forget about educating Digital Natives until they grow up and do it themselves, we had better confront this issue. And in so doing we need to reconsider both our methodology and our content." Prensky says that the brains of our Gen Y learners have physically changed as a result of their use of technology, and that they now "think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors."

A more recent report by Gary Small, neuroscientist from UCLA, has confirmed that the use of technology is changing the way that young brains function and develop. He describes the growing "brain gap" between older and younger generations, and the problems that each will face.

So, "e" is here to stay. Student-centered teachers are immigrants in our learner's world, and we don't have the right to say "no" to technology in teaching and learning. Let's work out how to best use it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

In a democracy we ought to be able to do better

Following yesterday's post on copyright, I received a comment from Faris Yakob - very timely, as at the time I was attending the informal Melbourne Beer Sphere, a worldwide movement initiated by Faris himself!

Faris wrote to alert me to a recent TED talk from Larry Lessig, Stanford Professor of Law, and founder of Creative Commons. Larry's talk is titled "How Creativity is being strangled by the law". If you haven't already seen this, then invest 19 minutes of your time right now:

"Among our kids, there's a growing copyright abolitionism, a generation that rejects the very notion of what copyright is supposed to do, rejects copyright and believes that the law is nothing more than an ass, to be ignored and to be fought at every opportunity possible."

I have to agree with Larry that the current copyright laws are inappropriate, and that "in a democracy, we ought to be able to do better." We should not be made to feel like criminals as we explore, create and learn.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Copyright - A clash of cultures?

One of the big issues that we are facing when trying to integrate Web 2.0 into the classroom is the huge gap between the two cultures... Web 2.0, which is all about sharing, mashing, remixing and embedding (see this presentation from Faris Yakob), versus the strict copyright rules and policies of our institutions.

Spend some time looking at Gen Y's home-made online videos, and you'll soon see that it's common practice to integrate video, music and images without the permission of the copyright owner. Although this is a clear breach of current copyright law, when was the last case where a teenager was dragged before the courts for using their favourite song in a shared YouTube video?

So, when we set an assignment, giving our students the opportunity to present their work in video format, and share it with others online, guess what they do?!

There is some hope - the US guidelines for fair use have been recently updated to reflect current practice in education.

Will Australian laws and institutions ever accept the unwritten rules of Web 2.0 culture? In the meantime, what's your approach to this problem? Turn a blind-eye, or enforce the rules to the letter of the law?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Afraid of technology? Rupert isn't!

For over 40 years, ABC Radio has presented the Boyer Lectures, a series of talks by prominent Aussies on a wide range of hot topics. Rupert Murdoch is the 2008 Boyer Lecturer, and he's been talking a lot of sense over the past couple of weeks.

Last Sunday, his lecture was titled "Who's afraid of new technology?" (listen here). His comments are consistent with the current situation in many educational institutions, where too many teachers are spending time criticising new technologies, rather than embracing them. In the words of Rupert, "whinging about the technology will get you nowhere. The only way to deal with new technology that up-ends your job or your business model is to get out in front of it. Otherwise it will get out in front of you." He goes on to say that "in the future, successful workers will be those who embrace a lifetime of learning. Those who don't will be left behind."

How can we expect our students to thrive, if teachers remain stuck in their old ways? As this self-confessed Digital Immigrant tells us, it's time for change!

I'm looking forward to his lecture on 23 November when he'll speak about the need for reform in Australia's education system. He is sure to expand on his view that "we need teachers who inspire—not those who conspire to thwart change."

Bravo, Rupert!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Web 2.0 and education - Perfect partners

Web 2.0, often described as the "participatory web", is a term which describes the changing nature of the online environment. There are many, varied definitions that differentiate Web 2.0 tools from their predecessors, but my favourite is:
  • Web 1.0 = the "read" web
  • Web 2.0 = the "read-write" web

Click to see the full size image.
web2.0 universe map

So, Web 2.0 is fundamentally about:
  • interaction,
  • participation, and
  • collaboration.

Now, how does this relate to teaching and learning?

Chickering and Gamson (1987), in their often-cited paper which outlines seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education, say that we should encourage interaction, reciprocity, and cooperation among students.

Do you see the obvious link? What an opportunity!

Which Web 2.0 tools should/do we use to connect our students? What's stopping us from doing so?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Flow in the classroom?

I've been watching the Ted Talks series for a while now, and this video recently caught my attention.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, positive psychologist and social theorist from Claremont Graduate University, proposed the concept of flow - a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work. That certainly sounds like an ideal state of mind for our students to occupy!

This is worth spending 19 minutes watching...

(Direct link to video)

How can we create an appropriate blend of "challenge and skill" to help our students achieve a state of flow?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Lectures are so "old-school"!

Lecture [noun]:
Pronunciation: \ˈlek-chər, -shə
Etymology: 15th century Middle English, act of reading, from Late Latin
lectura, from Latin lectus, past participle of legere.

They're interesting origins of the word "lecture", but unfortunately too many lecturers take this quite literally, and consider that teaching is a one-way delivery of information from "expert" to "young, open mind." These same people are today complaining that attendance in their lectures is falling to record low numbers, and that university students today are no longer committed, and don't want to learn. Hmmm... maybe (just maybe?) these lecturers are the cause of this non-attendance?

A couple of weeks ago, in a two-hour lecture with 250 students, I gave everyone an opportunity to interact. Something simple, but interactive. I invited everyone to contribute at any stage during the lecture - by raising their hand, by throwing me a message via paper plane, or by sending me an sms text message. Did it create excitement and engagement? You bet! (see this entry on friday 17th october).

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Preparing for the future

Dr Alan Finkel
"Good lecturers engage the students, they tell jokes and stories, they take questions from the students, they ask questions of the students and they proceed at a pace assessed by reading the mood in the lecture theatre." Dr Alan Finkel, Monash University Chancellor, June 2008.

The above comment was made as part of Dr Finkel's plenary lecture at the recent Australian Universities International Alumni Convention in Singapore. He went on to speak in detail about how technology is changing the way that we need to teach and learn, and that "in order for universities to be at the forefront, in order to be ultimately successful, there is no time like the present to be preparing for that future and testing the waters."

I thought that these comments from Dr Finkel would be an ideal first post in this, my new blog "RenewEd" - a place where I intend to question traditional teaching methods, openly share my thoughts and readings, and "test the waters" with new and adventurous uses of ICT in education. I'll be documenting my experiences, including the successes and failures, as I continue to explore new ways to engage my students over the coming years.

Please subscribe, contribute to the conversation, and help me to renew our students' educational experiences.