#PASCAL2015 – Some thoughts and reflections …

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The view of the sea in Catania

This is the second day of the PASCAL conference 2015 which is being held in Catania.

First of all a few words (or sentences) about Catania – it’s Mediterranean! very very Mediterranean with its wonderful climate
and the beautiful surrounding sea, cultural richness, and crazy crazy driving.

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The courtyard seen from the Aula Magna of the University of Catania

The Universita’ degli Studi di Catania, has been a very gracious host, providing a very nice setting for a great kick off to the first day of the conference yesterday.

I have to say that this is the first conference I am attending in a long time, where education is really at the focus of the discussions. Usually the conferences I attend, tend to be more on the computer science with a side of education. But here education is being discussed from all its multiple facets and perspectives and this is fresh! Technology is being granted ubiquitous credit as its use is subtly implied and definitely visible in many aspects of the research being presented. Technology becomes the underlying foundation for the research practices impinging on the real societal issues being discussed here.

On the first day, we had two very good keynote sessions, the first one being delivered by Professor Piyushimita Thakuriah, from the University of Glasgow, focusing on big data and its impact on the urban economy. In essence big data can be defined as that data which is being continuously generated by humans but which has not really been designed for research purposes. Most often we are designing research processes so that we collect specific data which we need to analyse to answer a specific research question or address a problem. Big data starts from the data. The data is out there – being generated. The question is: how can we harness it and use it to help society grow and overcome its many rising challenges? Professor Thakuriah, describes this process as the Big Data process, a pyramid structure where urban infrastructure can feed the data analytics for knowledge discovery to ultimately lead to an impact on the urban economy itself. So as an example – in Malta we have this huge traffic problem – did I say huge? let’s make it massive. Weather predictions, Twitter or Facebook data, can be used to predict traffic conditions identifying the areas that would suffer the most, thus finding strategies to overcome the challenges. Of course one actually does need to get down and tackle the problems in a pragmatic tangible way once these have been identified but the use of this lurking data, can certainly help to that extent.

The keynote that followed was from Professor Ronsisvalle from the University of Catania. His keynote that was about the Future of the University was just brilliant. It was sharp, witty and funny in the right measure – and it struck some chords. Professor Ronsivalle started his keynote by questioning the realistic nature of the universities’ objectives and targets for their professors and their students. The reality is that some of these expectations are not really realistic IF we want academia to work and function according to its true spirit. Unfortunately speaking from the perspective of the Maltese experience the pressures on University and Higher Education from society are huge – and these are in my opinion partly due to the fact that there is ignorance about the roles of the academics. Such enlightenment can only come through the dissemination of what universities actually do. Again speaking from my own experience at the University in Malta, I would say that the university tries quite hard to push its message across society through a variety of initiatives and events. But my concern really is that this message is still not coming across as it should be, at times giving more rise to polemics. Of course I am not saying that there is no room for improvement and that we can’t be criticised but the issue here is that community outreach needs to be more pragmatic – more tangible.

On the matter of communities – I think that my take home key word for this conference has been Communities. Most of the presentations I have sat through yesterday afternoon and this morning focused on the following keywords: Communities, Collaboration, Engagement. It is possible that one of the ways, in which to really get the message across is that of actively involving and engaging specific sections of communities to tangibly reach solutions to problems and challenges that are affecting the local society.

Sometimes, we have to come off our high horses and remember that our primary role as academics, is to research ways on how to improve the quality of life in society and to inform, guide and help the implementation process for this.

On this subject, tomorrow I will be speaking about the possibility of using MOOCs and alternate reality games to engage citizens more actively in societal issues. More to come in the coming days…

My big question and experience for #ocTEL

So I start this new journey inside another MOOC, (I am not new to MOOCs), that plans to discuss Technology Enhanced Learning. My big question for the first week of #ocTEL is very much related to the work I do and to the experience I have accumulated over the years. Let me first start with a brief introduction of my professional career. I have a first degree in Education and I have, together with a colleague of mine, designed and developed my first digital 2D game way back in 1997, when in Malta, technology was still in its nascent years. My game, was designed around social constructivist theories, and focused very much on activity and interactivity, using various multimedia objects and game mechanics to help learners achieve their quests. Following that, I spent a few years teaching, both young adolescents and older adults. This was a challenging experience, but I felt that I needed to continue what I first started out doing… using technology as a medium to reach a wider audience and have a greater impact.

So in 2003 I joined a team of people who were working on an EU-funded project, focusing on the teaching of restoration and conservation techniques, using distance education. In 2003, the project centred around using online and videoconferencing techniques to deliver both theoretical and practical aspect of the courses that had been designed and developed by the  team I worked with. It was then that I had been introduced to MOODLE and it was back then I started off where I had left in 1997, that is, focusing on designing education using technology-based media and tools to support a learning that is both active and interactive. We did learn a lot from the project, and we even published a manual for best practices in videoconferencing for teaching and learning. I started taking more courses in technology applications, to be able to understand what happens at the back end of the applications we experience as users. The team and myself, worked a lot with the trainers, to identify best pedagogical practices when introducing technology to enhance the learning processes. In 2005, I started my Masters in Information Technology, and from there I built some experience and expertise around AI techniques as applied to learning and education, developing a thesis that revolved around the design and implementation of a personalized learning space for further and lifelong learning.

With a background in Education, and my focus and passion for educating others, a natural step was to join the Faculty of Education’s staff at the University of Malta. The scope of the Faculty of Education, is to be able to give a service to people who wish to further their studies in Education and become teachers. In 2007, amongst one of my various research interests I started converging onto virtual worlds and serious games, as an area in Education, that was still relatively new. I got hooked to Second Life, and I started carrying out some research about this particular medium, and how it could be of particular use and potential to people in and for education. In 2010, I submitted my PhD proposal (this was accepted) to try and understand whether using virtual worlds and 3D spaces can indeed shape an individual’s behavior and attitudes, in a way that can have a lasting effect.

Since I was working with pre-service teachers, I could identify a number of challenges that could be addressed during teacher training programs. One of the challenges, paradoxically, relates to the use and adoption of technology practices in the classroom. Various research indicated, that across the world, teachers seem to face a number of problems when it comes to changing the style of teaching to adapt to the 21st century practices that most of us are used to. Paradoxically as well, the teachers beyond the classroom may not all be avid gamers, but many are quite active on a number of online social media platforms. Yet when it comes to replicating that style of living and learning to the classroom, most would, (dramatically put!), step back in horror – “What? use Facebook in class? – oh never” …  “What? using games to learn – what is the world coming to?” (these, by the way, are not overdramatizing nor fictitious, but have been taken from a number of Facebook posts – updated by teachers!)

My own definitions of TEL revolve around a different approach and attitude to learning. I do not believe that it is all about the technology really, but it is about a new way of looking at problems and challenges. I knew, from research, that virtual worlds and serious games, have so much potential to help people gain  insights into different lifestyles, or ways of being or doing. So I designed a virtual world, for my own group of pre-service teachers, that amounted to about a 104 participants in all, and that focused mostly around the topic of how they could integrate different learning technologies and adapt them to their own specialization subject. The results are still work in progress but so far are promising to be quite interesting.

My belief is that TEL is a way of living and learning – it necessarily involves a mind shift possibly leading to a change in direction from our cultural backgrounds. I think it is useless teaching technology or training in the use of tools. Tools become obsolete almost immediately, and teaching is such a complex activity, that no amount of teaching technology can somehow identify the right way of applying it in the real classroom setting. So what I think is this, if somehow, these teacher trainees can assimilate TEL in a sort of way that grows on them, teaching using TEL approaches becomes as natural to them as using the mobile device, which can equally be applied to learning.

The big question is this: how can I, as an academic, help my students (who are teacher trainees) see TEL as a way of living and learning, rather than an imposition? Hearing students speak in corridors you would imagine that modules and units related to technology and TEL seem to be a burden, rather than something which is fun, and which is constructive. How can we help people engage in TEL with an attitude that is positive, constructive and creative towards the modalities employed? Your feedback is much appreciated!

Can we learn without teachers? #CFHE12

I am writing this post in reply to a post I just came across in one of the #CFHE12 twitter feeds – “MOOCs and the Teaching Profession“. This post triggered some thoughts that I had to express in writing. It is true that as I can see it, some University admin, and other educational admin tend to forget all about the importance of learning, the democratic notions of applying pedagogy in the humane sense.

It is also a fact, as I see it, that Governments revel in numbers… expenditures to them mean investment in Education. However, in my opinion, the real investment is not in the tools, in the buildings, in the new and polished structures, not even in the technologies that can be used.

The investment in Education lies in the teachers. The article quotes someone saying – after all teaching is not a profession. I think it is true you know… teaching is not JUST a profession… teaching IS a vocation – someone, a teacher, is driven by a passion towards helping people become better individuals through Education… that is where the real return-on-investment in my humble opinion lies. It is true, that as the article states, there are those people who are thinking that MOOCs and the likes, online Education, eLearning, etc. will effectively replace teachers. They will also quote projects like the Hole in the Wall by Sugata Mitra, possibly. But they will also quite possibly fail to quote the second part of that Professor Mitra talks about in the video I have linked – the ‘granny cloud‘, as young learners are motivated to explore the depths of their knowledge by themselves acting as teachers to grannies.

Maybe yes, the role of the teacher as the ‘sage on the stage’ may vanish. I am sure and I believe that that role should be the first to vanish.
But this doesn’t mean that the teachers vanish. The teachers, as guides, as mentors, as people helping other people making ‘connections‘ in learning – at whatever level of Education – will always be needed.

What is an MOOC without the right direction? Or rather as the article itself states, how deep will the learning-after-an-MOOC, run if it is not built upon the foundations of learning theories? I am sure that there will always be those decision makers who don’t really care about all this. I am sure, that just as they exist now, there are decisions makers who wouldn’t care about anything as long as nobody complains or as long as they have numbers to brag about – whether financial or human.
However I think that opposing these decision makers, there should be people who keep fighting so that the role of teachers in the learning that belongs to the 21st century society is not only supported but is also upheld as a vital position, without which Education would greatly risk becoming impoverished.

#CFHE12 – Moving towards the Net Pedagogy – Week2

Thinking about what I have read, and heard and my own views and ideas I would say that in HE more than in any other educational institution we should really look into an adequate, effective net pedagogy.

For this blog I decided to combine the three questions that we were asked as Week 2 activity and recount one episode of a conversation I myself had with our University admin. We need an entire transformation of the way we do our net learning – whether it is totally online or blended. A year or so ago, I was contacted by one of our University administrators and I was asked, “Hey we need to get into the world of online learning. What shall we do?” After which I asked, “So what is the primary reason? Why should University should go online?” And the reply was – typical – I would say: “because we do not want to be left behind”.

Which in essence is equivalent to ‘ Since everybody is doing it – then so should we”. And that is the position of admin – which might to some extent be comprehensible. Competition is tough and one should keep up with the challenge. So I am fine with that. What I am not fine with is the next step. Which means that inevitably there is the question – “Ok, can we do this in 3-6months?” To which I gape and say – “what go online i.e. make an online presence as a UNIVERSITY in 3-6 months?” I shrug and go on: “Yeah sure if you have someone with a great deal of experience such as those guys we see from some of the best HE institutions in the Australia, UK, US and Canada – and even then I am sure that you will need a substantial amount of time, effort and resources to produce something which is effective – possibly being successful”.

But how do you convince people that teaching over the net involves an entirely different pedagogical approach than in any other ‘lecture’ setting?

How do you get your institution to get to a different model? Well that is a very difficult concept I would say owing to the complexity of the issue we are discussing. First of all, one has to assume that everyone in the said institution is embracing a pedagogy which is not tantamount to the ‘sage on the stage’.

In my institution, I am conscious that many academics are not even aware of a different pedagogy than that which they have been used to experiences all their lives. So much for the 21st century learner! So when it comes to switching to the net… how do you convince people that slapping a PowerPoint presentation into the MOODLE VLE does not exactly mean online learning? – that does not exactly mean anything at all really – given a presentation with a number of slides, containing chunks of text that one cannot really connect with.

And for this reason it is important I think that we need to show how the good people are using the net – not as a source of information but more in terms of helping people – learners use the net to make connections. Connections between people, between experts, between colleagues, but also connections with the information, connecting data in a context that makes sense. So the tools that need to be used and the applications that can be exploited really depends on the learning outcomes that one sets.

Therefore as a first advice to those wishing to start off on the net I would say, that the institution needs to be broken into smaller segments, whereby a team of learning designers, would be able to work with developers, content experts, multimedia artists to bring together communities for learning and in learning rather than simply offering content in an e-version. As I always keep saying – when we go for e-Learning, we need first and foremost to concentrate on the learning and the learner because if we want success we have to concentrate on the human connections.

Popularizing Education – Education for who? #CFHE12

As I write this post, I am listening to a seminar about Popular Education in Latin America delivered by Professor Carlos Alberto Torres from the Paolo Freire Institute, UCLA visiting the University of Malta. In Freire’s popular education and culture was that of “basing educative practices upon individual and collective experience, popular education took previously acquired knowledge by the people and reconstruct it in a communal process of learning.” Moreover, popular education sought to look at the person rather than the end achievements of simply passing the tests. When we focus on the assessment part, then we do not have the time to feel pride into co-ownership of the knowledge that is manifested in learning processes.

Looking back at MOOCs and what these attempt to achieve, or maybe what they can achieve by exploiting the tools, that are accessible, is this possibility of popularizing education – that is creating knowledge by the people for the people, overcoming the hegemony leading to the status quo as described by Gramsci.

One of the important underlying principles upon which Freire builds his theories and paradigms is dialogue. One most often tends to overlook or underestimate the power of dialogue – two way conversations that are now at the basis of most courses delivered via the online environment. And as I listen to Prof Torres explaining about social movements and their rift with Universities and public institutions I think, as I try to reconcile my thoughts with what I have read so far in CFHE12, could it be that MOOCs and the likes are in reality viewed as “different” movements that are essentially driven by people and are thus considered as separated from Universities and public institutions? I have read a substantial amount of articles which point towards this kind of propagation of fear, for the ‘different’ or for that which challenges the status quo in which our state of Education has been for too long. I very much wonder if the issues that have to do with this reluctance of adopting new modes and methodologies, is more pertinent to the reluctance of risk taking in making knowledge ‘common’ or belonging to the people rather than reserving it for fewer people.