Monday, June 18, 2012

Leaving on a jetplane. International Education cuts both ways.

A relative of mine is currently grinding through the end of his Leaving Certificate exams, and how he does won't make a bit of difference to his life. This isn't because he has some great insight into the big picture that his peers, and I, lack. It's because he has an acceptance letter from a very respectable University in the United States.

Statistically, he's not an outlier. He's smart, but no more so than many of the other kids sweating it out this month to win the points race. His immediate family are comfortable, but not wealthy. They are, to be fair, somewhat better educated than the average, but are by no means outliers..

In a different age, he would have been a sure thing for the local university and have to make the best of it. Instead, he's going to play a different game, and engage with his future at a level that wouldn't be possible in Ireland. Win, lose or draw, he's jumped ahead three squares in the game of life, and is going to get opportunities at a level his stay at home peers simply won't have.

What does this mean for Universities in Ireland. If the best and the brightest of their potential undergraduates can now go overseas as easily as getting to Dublin or Cork, why wouldn't they? NUIM or Notre Dame? CIT or Cornell? It's ok. There's be plenty of students.You can get along fine with the ones who don't have the pluck to go abroad, the ones who don't have the audacity to think outside the box and sit SAT's, and the ones without the determination to dive into the overseas college applications maelstrom. There's plenty of students who will just grind through the leaving certificate because that's what everyone else does, and go to the local university, because that's what their pals are doing. Your University can make do with them, as the cream of the crop heads off overseas. Skimmed milk diet. Is that ok? When Irish Universities think of international education, they invariably think of Chinese, Malaysians or Saudi students paying full economic fees, little human ATMs walking out of the Arrivals hall to pretty up balance sheet. We forget that international education can cut both ways. Airport have a departures hall too.

In many ways the most transformational learning technology is the jet engine, relentlessly ferrying thousands, millions of students away to pastures greener. The internet's most significant contribution to education so far might well be the online application form. No longer are our children limited by their career guidance teacher ("Would you consider the seminary. You'll never want for a shirt on your back." my father was once advised). They can find the one best place to help them be whatever it is they want to be and find a way to get there. The early ones will break ground, and show it is possible to go overseas at undergraduate level. Once teachers, students and parents know it can be done, others will follow. Our diaspora is another enabler. There are few places on earth without an 'Irish Mafia' who might keep an eye on young Seanie or Mary. Many parents have lived and worked in these places. Boston is, in many ways, more familiar to us than Belfast.

Deep prosperity helps too.We forget that, in current climes of doom and gloom, that we are at the level of utopian wealth Keynes prophesied in "Economic prospects for our grandchildren" when slow and steady growth has given us incomes unimaginable in 1930's (Keynes piece is timely reading). Of course it's expensive to attend university overseas, but real fees are coming down the pipeline in Ireland, so staying here is expensive too, and wherever you study, you must still pay housing and food. You may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and many Irish parents can put education first on their family budgets. Indeed US colleges provide student supports precisely to attract bright candidates without big wallets, and in a global Higher Education market, they'll be seeking to build a global Alumni base, which is, after all, where the real money is for them. They're not charging for the undergraduate you are, they are investing in the Alumnus you will be. May our children be wise enough to do the same.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The VLE as Kenwood Chef

Virtual Learning Environments are a lot like expensive food processors. They come with a lot of interesting looking blades and attachments, but most people use only them to make smoothies.

If you only use your €400 Food Processer as a €30 Juicer, why not get rid of it, and just use a juicer? Content management systems are cheaper to install and maintain. That's an interesting idea, but I wouldn't advise it for several reasons. Installed VLEs nowadays tend to be tightly integrated with other campus systems, plagiarism detection tools and so on. You can't easily turn them off and go cold turkey. Plus, a lot of large scale content management systems are even harder to use than VLE's.

A more important reason is that Virtual Learning Environments act a kind of a gateway drug for online Learning. You come onboard first to put up some handouts because the photocopier fumes give you a migraine. Next thing, you throw up some slides, exercises. It's basic content transmission stuff. You could quit anytime. But for some people, that's not enough. Perhaps a few audio files, to help with revision. Maybe a little discussion forum, to draw out the in class lurkers. Next thing you know, you're digging Downes and Illich, handcoding PHP and you've moved on from the VLE entirely to open source systems. VLE's are for newbs, you'll say, after all, all they do is perpetuate hierarchical transmission models of education, man. For the right kind of mind, VLE's are the start of a slippery slope. First dose free with Moodle!

But in reality, few move past the VLE as a pure content management system. We're all still using our expensive Kenwood Chef as a juicer. But that's ok. If the VLE does nothing more than act as a heavy lifter for the transmission side of teaching, and allows you to execute a flip and use your in class time for something else, fantastic. Over time though, this low grade usage of the VLE will change, as other needs like Plagiarism detection, assessment and grade management come into the picture.  Presently, people tend to use VLE's reactively, to solve problems, rather than proactively, to be better educators.Inevitably, pressure of student numbers create problems, like assessment and retention, and the VLE has tools in place to help to solve them, once the need becomes urgent.

We have the tools already in house to do more than we think, if we learn to use them. Another big gadget won't make us better online educators. That's like people who can hardly scramble eggs fetishising  over creme brulee torches in the kitchen shop. Another cookbook won't help either. I've got dozens, and I still only cook 5 things. Just like cooking, our online learning should focus on doing simple things really well, with the tools we already have, and the best ingredients you can get.

Due credit: This metaphor came up while at the recent EDIN writers retreat in Rosslare. We have a little grassroots community of practice who research on VLE's and were working on a book chapter (see my last post) and this came analogy out of that twelve brain hivemind. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What do students think of Virtual Learning Environments

Students want lecturers to make more and better usage of their Virtual Learning Environments (Blackboard, Moodle and so forth), and say that using VLE's helps them to learn. Those are two of the many, many findings presented by a project I'm involved with at EdTech 2012 last week. The presentation, with audio, is embedded above. Pop on your headphones and have a listen as you read.

The project looks at how students really use and feel about virtual learning environments. What's unique about it is the scale. I kicked it off here in Cork in 2008, and four years later it's still running across a dozen institutions in Ireland, using a common survey instrument to give us a dataset that allows us to unpick differences in student attitudes between different institutions, VLE systems and demographic groups. It's a big dataset, and we're only scratching the surface.

This is the first time we've been able to do time comparison between institutions in the 2008/09 and 2011/12 groups. Damien Raftery talks about those results from about 7'14 in. It's really interesting to see patterns emerge over time, as VLE usage seems to climb an S curve over time, and student usage patterns evolve over time since '08, as economies crashes, tablets launched and broadband cover improved.

It's an entirely open, grassroots project. We have a big, highly engaged team, but get no grants and have no project leader, and we like it that way. The work gets done because the findings are genuinely useful for people figuring out how to move forward with their own VLE's. Everyone contributes according to their interests and skills. New institutions are always welcome, whether you just want to use the survey instrument, pool data, or get involved on the analysis side. Over the summer, we'll be kicking off a staff survey instrument to complement the student perspective, and hopefully we'll start getting into system metrics next year to help address the limitations of survey data. If you want more information, there's a paper on AISHE-J (old data, but useful nevertheless) and all going well a chapter coming down the pipeline in EDIN's Emerging Issues III late in the year, or just get in touch with me, or any of the authors.