The Covid gap year – a catalyst for change

At times it might seem difficult to find the positives in the current Covid crises but there are some. We may have had to change our travel plans but are benefiting from cleaner air and more time, staying closer to home is leading to a greater sense of community, and social media which was becoming ever more toxic has been used by many to keep in touch with friends and family. But how long will we continue to enjoy these healthy bi-products when we can jump on that aeroplane, tweet something without thinking and once again time becomes scarce, consumed by work. The downside is it can so easily revert back to how it was before.

However, some changes are likely to become permanent, people are beginning to call what comes after Covid the new norm, a kind of normality, familiar and yet different. We have all been given a glimpse of the future or to be precise the future has been brought forward not as a blurry image but with startling clarity because we are living it.

Change is easy
On the whole it’s difficult to get people to change their behaviour but if you change the environment it’s a different story. If we had asked people if they wanted to work from home they would have had to guess what it would be like, imagining not having to travel, imagining not seeing colleagues in the wok place but if you are forced into doing it, you experience it for real. And that’s what’s happened, people may not have chosen to work from home but having experienced it the change will be faster.

Neurologically a habit or learning for that matter takes place when you do something repeatedly. In 1949 Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuroscientist noted that once a circuit of neurons is formed, when one neuron fires so do the others, effectively strengthening the whole circuit. This has become known as Hebbian theory or Hebbs law and leads to long term potentiation, (LTP).

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Habits are patterns that can be thought of as grooves created over time by repetition but once formed they are hard to get out of, the deeper the groove, the less we think about it at a conscious level. But if you change the environment you are forcing the brain to reconsider those habits, effectively moving you out of that particular groove until you form another one. The secret is of course to create good habits and remove bad ones.

Many are suggesting that working from home will become far more common, Google and Facebook have already announced that they do not need their employees to go back into offices until at least the end of 2020, but who knows what that groove will be like by then. The other big changes on the horizon with potential for long term impact are, the reduction in the use of cash as appose to contactless, online shopping already popular will see a more drastic reshaping of the high street and studying online becoming a new way of learning. Education has seen one of the biggest changes arguably since we have had access to the internet with 1.3 billion students from 186 countries across the world now having to learn remotely. Even before COVID-19, global EdTech investment was $18.7 billion and the overall market for online education is projected to reach $350 Billion by 2025. (source WEF).

This is what school in China looks like during coronavirus.

Changing attitudes to study
Given the choice 1.3 billion students would not have all agreed to study online but Covid-19 has made this a reality within a matter of months. Its an environmental change on a massive scale. The argument that online learning is better remains complex and confusing, requiring a clearer understanding of what is being measured and a much longer time period under which it can be evaluated. There are for example claims that retention rates are higher by somewhere between 25% – 60% but I would remain sceptical despite its appeal and apparent common sense logic.

Instead focus on your own learning, think less of how much more difficult it is to concentrate staring at a computer screen rather than being in a classroom and embrace the process. You are in a new “groove” and as a result it’s not going to feel comfortable.

Covid Gap year
Why not make 2020 your Covid Gap year. UCAS says that one of the benefits of a gap year is that it “offers you the opportunity to gain skills and experiences, while giving you time to reflect and focus on what you want to do next”. It’s the changing environment in terms of geography, people, doing things that you might not have chosen that makes the gap year so worthwhile, and despite what people say when they return, it wasn’t enjoyable all of the time, you do get bored and frustrated but it can open your mind to new possibilities and ironically lockdown can do the same.

Online learning is a new environment, view it through the spectrum of new skills and experiences and only when you reflect back should you decide on how valuable it might have been.

The self-isolating learner – a new mindset

COVID-19 is forcing everyone to make changes, effortlessly disrupting routine and future plans, for many students the exams you have been working towards may well have been cancelled or alternative methods of assessment announced, and your School, University or College will have closed its doors for an unspecified period of time. With what could be described as a Dunkirk spirit many educational establishments have achieved what would have seemed impossible, a shift from face to face lectures and a physical campus-based mentality to a virtual learning environment.

If you are continuing to study, doing it remotely might be a brand-new experience and although it will mean some changes what remains the same is the way we learn. In fact, one of the biggest challenges is in not wasting time, something ironically because of the restrictions we now all have a lot more of. This new virtual learning can take many different forms, the platform will most likely be one of the following, Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Brightspace but there are others. Content will be delivered via any one or a combination of, live webcast, instructionally designed eLearning, video or simply tagged learning materials. All of them however require a positive approach to self-study.

Tips to studying when working from home

Prepare a Timetable – without the discipline of the classroom or a formal schedule you will need something to help manage your time. A timetable can seem unnecessary for experienced students but the process of preparing one will give you a mental picture of the tasks and challenges ahead. It should include important learning activities and tests that need completing and by when. Don’t underestimate how long something will take, learning is not an exact science so don’t forget to build in a buffer. Also make sure you include breaks and non-study time – just not too many.

Create a learning space – most students prefer a quiet place with little distraction in which to study. This may of course be difficult in a busy household but try and find a space and use the same one every day. If noise is a problem consider a headset with low volume classical or instrumental music playing in the background. Avoid listening to songs with lyrics as it can break your concentration.
Next remove as many distractions as possible. This will of course mean putting your mobile phone away, also turn off any alerts, the noise is enough to create what is called a “dopamine bump”, a short pleasurable sensation which will make it almost impossible for you not to check your messages. Contrary to popular student culture, multi-tasking doesn’t work. You may feel as if you’re watching Game of Thrones and answering a question at the same time, in reality you are simply swapping attention between two competing activities, which is tiring and reduces levels of concentration.

Don’t study for too long or cramCramming can work in those later stages of revision, the problem when learning and not revising is it overloads short term memory resulting in you forgetting something from the day before. Little and often is the secret to effective study. We don’t have any hard evidence as to the optimum period of study but most believe something around one and a half hours works best. After your session make sure you have a reasonable break, 10, 20 or even 30 minutes, grab a cup of coffee or take a walk outside, it’s important to physically move. There is a lot of evidence to show that exercise helps improve concentration and the ability to focus on specific tasks.

Question practice is key – Although attempting questions can seem a little disheartening, especially if you get something wrong it is one of the most effective methods of learning. The process of answering a question involves what we call retrieval practice forcing the brain to think back over what has previously been learned and in so doing transferring knowledge into long term memory.

Keep in contact with others – fellow students can be a real help when it comes to clarifying problems or just giving moral support. Also don’t forget your University or College, they will be only too pleased to support you, with many providing, forums, technical help and direct contact with your lecturer/teacher.

Develop a positive mindset – working alone can result in moments of self-doubt which can turn to worry and or stress. The important point is that both of these are perfectly normal reactions to a challenging situation. There is a view that worry is simply the way in which the brain moves something up your list of priorities. Lists are a great way of dealing with worry, simply write down what you are worried about and turn it into an action. Remember a certain amount of stress can also be good, its continual long-term stress that can cause problems.
Drink lots of water and as mentioned above build exercise into your daily routine, it’s a great antidote to stress and who knows you might not only pass your next exam but end up with a six pack as well.

If you would like to find out more about studying from home, here is a short video.

E Learning, without the E


It’s as if putting the letter E in front of the word ‘learning’ has in some way created a brand new concept, it of course has not. If that were the case we should have B learning to show that you have learned from a book or maybe P learning to indicate what you learned from your parents. In fact a search of the Internet reveals some degree of uncertainly as to exactly what E learning is, the common denominator however is that it involves the use of electronic resources. I personally favour the term ‘online learning’ as it seems somehow more descriptive.

The classroom trap

In trying to more closely understand E learning it is easy to fall into the classroom trap, that is clarification by comparing with classroom. This is largely unhelpful because it ultimately leads to the question as to which one is best, and that very much depends on what you want, how you learn and the circumstances in which you find yourself. So let’s avoid the trap and accept that they are both methods of delivering knowledge or skills using a formal process, as apposed to an informal one.


Different experience

‘Learning online’, sorry but it just sounds better……is not the same as learning from a book or in a classroom. Classroom, online and text books are all structured to take the learner from a point of ignorance to one of being informed, but the way, and environment in which you learn is different. Let’s explore these differences with the top three positives and negatives of online learning.

Positives of online

Flexible
– this is perhaps one of the biggest advantages of online, I am in fact writing this blog sat on a sun lounger surrounded by blue sky, the only interruption being a welcome breeze, and it’s the technology that allows me to do this. That same technology gives you the ability to learn on your terms, which means when you want and where you want. This has great advantages in maximising time, utilising moments in a busy day that might otherwise be lost. For example, when traveling to work by train, spare time in your lunch hou r or even making the most of the rush hour by choosing to stay at work and study rather than sit in a traffic jam.


Self paced
– another very important one. Referring to individual learning styles is often picked upon by academics as being something of an urban myth. But few would disagree that knowledge acquisition is personal, with some people able to pick up a topic quickly whilst others might take longer. Online learning allows the individual to study at their own pace, quickly when something is easily understood and slowly for the tricky areas, oh and you can keep going over the topic again and again.


Personalised
– with online, personalisation is far more than working through the content at your own pace, it offers the ability to truly personalise the experience. But be careful with this one, many courses will headline with the term personalisation, yet not deliver, it’s very much a spectrum. At the one end it is little more than a standard pathway with tests that direct you back to content to be studied again.

In the middle is the same process but the direction as to what needs studying is far more precise. It can include specific tips and hints bespoke to that topic written in a different way to the original text even using new and more suitable instructional techniques e.g. video, diagrams, interactive activities etc. To add something truly personal it might also provide an opportunity to speak to real people with access to your prior learning experience and academic record

We have yet to see what lies at the other end of the spectrum, an online learning experience that can adapt the pathway using big data and analytics, learning both from you as an individual as well as all other students with one objective, to offer the best personalised learning experience possible.

Click this link to find out more about adaptive.

Negatives of online

Motivation and procrastination
– recently we have seen that having more choice is not as desirable as you might imagine. Studying when you want is great, unless you keep putting it off. This is contributing to students taking longer to pass exams. And of course procrastination goes hand in hand with a lack of motivation, another problem often associated with online. There have been partial solutions to this for online students but they are rarely as effective as having your own personal trainer, a teacher who you meet with face to face to put you through your paces.

Isolation – learning is ultimately a solitary experience, yes you can learn with and from others but to develop a deep understanding you need to reflect on what you have learned, manipulating the knowledge until you make it yours . But doing this on your own can be uninspiring and leads to a sense of isolation, which makes the whole process seem a lot harder than perhaps it is.

Learning style – this is a simple one, some people just don’t like learning using a computer. I think its possibly because they have never given it a go or if they have, it wasn’t a very good online course in the first place. That said it is a reason, and needs to be respected.


Is Online for you?

1. Read through the pros and cons above and give them all a number between 1 and 5, for example if you think flexibility is very import give it a 5. On the other hand if you find it very hard to motivate yourself, give that a 5, etc. Add up your scores and if the positives come out higher than the negatives, online is probably for you.

2. Look to the quality of the learning provider, new innovations require both investment in terms of time, money and experience of learning. Initially at least go for the bigger companies with a solid reputation.

3. Try before you buy, ask if you can have a trail period to see if this type of learning works for you.

One last thought, this is not an irreversible decision, if you don’t like it change your mind. Also why not study different subjects in different ways, some online, others maybe in the classroom or simply from the book?

Blended – taking responsibility for your own learning

Taking responsibilityBlended course programmes are here to stay. The idea that studying comprises of both time in the classroom with others and time learning on your own using online or even traditional learning materials is certainly not new. Of course the purist will argue that blended learning has to or exclusively use online materials rather than a text book – no matter.

This blog is not about blended learning, more the implications of what studying on blended programmes means i.e. you have to study on your own and as a result take responsibility for how you learn.

Instructor led – easier

In a traditional classroom the teacher (instructor) stands at the front of the classroom and leads the learning. They tell you what to learn, when to learn, even how to learn.  They also dictate the pace and mood of the delivery. There is of course nothing wrong with this and many students really value it, in fact it’s their preferred method of learning. Of course its far from perfect, not everyone learns at the same pace or in the same way, but let’s put that debate, or blog aside for another day.

With a blended programme the student has to leave the security of the classroom and enter the world of self managed learning (SML).

Student led (SML) -harder but more effective

Self managed learning gives the student great power, they can study what they want, perhaps not the subject matter but certainly the order, when they want, how they want etc. However as Spiderman* once said, with great power comes great responsibility. You now have to take responsibility for the result. This means if something doesn’t make sense it’s not the teacher’s fault it’s yours!

Its perhaps even more basic than that, you are also responsible for how long you spend studying, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. You can study on a Monday or Wednesday, or just the weekend. You can study for one hour or for 20 minutes. And there lies the problem, when it’s up to the individual a lot of people take the easy way out, the route of least resistance and put it off for another day.

However when you do take responsibility, the quality of the learning is significantly improved. Listening to the teacher is easy but not always that effective. The SMLearner has to set goals, monitor their performance and finally reflect, how well did they do compared with how well they thought they would? It is partly this process that makes the learning so good, but it will feel harder.

How to be a SML

These may all be worth covering in more detail in another blog but for now think of this as a check list.

  • Use a timetable – Google calendar is great for this. Put in all your key dates including exactly what you will do e.g. read chapters one to three – make notes – answer question 2,3 and 4.
  • Have a place to learn. This might seem obvious but you need somewhere that is quiet, plenty of space, good lighting, with little distraction. Perhaps most important is that you know that when you are in this room you feel ready to study.
  • Read carefully, I have written on this before. Underline key points as you go. Don’t just read, you have to think as well.
  • Make notes, even if you have pre- prepared ones. Once again I have written on the best way to do this. If you are following an e learning module make notes as you work through the online guidance.
  • Listen to your internal dialogue. When you are working alone just make sure that what you are saying to yourself is positive. Remember this is not about telling yourself everything will be fine, it’s about moving forward e.g. I just don’t understand this, what I need to do is read it again perhaps from another book.

Taking responsibility

Want to find out more about taking responsibility for learning – watch video 1video 2video 3. They are all less than three minutes long and well worth it.

PS *Of course Spiderman can’t really talk it was Stan Lee the writer of Spiderman, although Franklin D Roosevelt and others have also been quoted as saying this or something similar.

 

And the cow said – MOOOOCS

MOOOOCIn October I decided I would find out first hand exactly what it was like to study online so I joined a MOOC. For those that don’t know what these are, a Massive Open Online Course is a free or at least normally free online course that has the capacity to have thousands of students in the same virtual classroom.

In fact only last month the British Council launched its first MOOC on English language attracting over 100,000 students. In essence a MOOC provides “education” at scale, accessible globally for free, and what could be wrong with that? Well in essence nothing, having a well educated society not only helps with social mobility but as has been well documented adds significant economic value.

Problems with MOOCS

But as you can imagine not everyone is happy, most of the concerns centre around quality.

If MOOCS are so good why is it that despite the large numbers of students enrolling there are very few, around 8% who actually complete the course.

Is this the result of poor instructional design, the fact that some MOOCS have very little student/ teacher engagement and are simply a series of videos linked together with reference to materials available elsewhere on the web. Is it because no one person is accountable for the students, there is no “teacher” to motivate the student if they fall behind. And due to the scale, feedback has to be automated or assessed by peers who are clearly not experts.

Well it might be all of the above and the course completion rate is clearly of concern yet some would argue that having a less teacher centric course is exactly what you need for students to develop a much deeper understanding. This is something *George Siemem’s argues.

Making sense of the chaos is what learning is all about, if teachers plot the route it reduces the value of what is being or could be learned.”

 “The great thing about MOOCS is that the learning does not end when the course ends, because the students have built their own communities, the learning becomes life long.”

M+O+O+C+S

People talk about MOOCs in so many different ways, in fact the name itself can be confusing when trying to understand exactly what a MOOC is.

  • Massive – A MOOC works on a platform that enables thousands of students to see and hear the same thing at the same time. The technology behind this is impressive and using one tutor to deliver the course enables the most to be made of the expertise.
  • Open – its open to anyone, there are no prior learning requirements. It is also open in the context of being free, and the learning not being restricted to the views of one person, the community are also teachers.
  • Online – it is online but is not what some would class as an online course. An online course unlike a MOOC would be instructionally designed to ensure the learning is consistent with the learning outcomes and incorporates the latest developments from the field of learning science.
  • Course – It has a cohort, a subject matter and a beginning, middle and end. But as outlined above, at its simplest it could be little more than linked video with no overall instruction and some would argue this is not a course.

A MOOC on one level is the next generation text book

Listen to Anant Agarwas on TED 

Providers

It is important to say that as MOOCs are so new, the first ones established around 2011, it is hard to pin them down as they are constantly changing. But if you are interested here is a note of the key providers.

  • Future Learn – owned by Britain’s Open University Offers MOOCs from many UK Universities. The newest of the MOOCs with approximately 750,000 plus users.
  • Coursera has around 10 million users and is by far the biggest, a for-profit founded by two Stanford University Professors.
  • edX  have around 3 million users, a not for profit MOOC founded by MIT and Harvard University.
  • Udacity have around 1.6 million users.  A for -profit backed by Sebastian Thun (co founder) and two Venture capitalist. It is currently repositioning its offering to be more vocational, targeted at professionals. Listen to Peter Norvig early observations in 2012 on TED. Peter taught one of the first classes with Sebastian Thun on artificial intelligence with over 100,000 online.

My MOOC – conclusions

edX

My edX course with MIT

The course I chose was with one of the leading provider’s edX and is called Design and Development of Educational Technology. Okay not for everyone but so far I have found it very impressive.

The course was delivered over 6 weeks. It consisted of video lectures with a designated tutor Professor Eric Kloper introducing many of them himself.

There were links to further reading and sessions requiring a hands on approach, in some instances “playing” with software to find out how it works. In addition there were tasks and projects to complete, all recognised by the awarding of a certificate at the end. And yes it was free. Like my students however I have already fallen behind, but I do plan to complete the programme as so far I have found it both engaging and rewarding.

But what of the future – What we can say is that some MOOCS have responded to the criticisms and are now delivering first class courses to thousands of students, online and for free. But MOOCS are still evolving; blending MOOCs with traditional face to face courses is gaining in popularity for example.

There is however still the big question as to how they are funded, and for me this is about quality. Anyone can put information that is already freely available online in a thoughtless way and leave it for the students to curate. But a well thought through MOOC takes considerable time and skill to design and deliver. This is of course no different to an online or classroom course. A good course needs good people and they cost money. But I see no reason why MOOCs can’t charge, I would gladly have paid for mine. The cost would be low given the volumes, say £1 – £500 but the reach would still be global. And the monies would enable the providers to continually invest in order to deliver the best courses possible.

Bill Gates talks about MOOCS well worth watching, its only 4 minutes “the information has been in the textbook for hundreds of years….online does not enhance knowledge…” 

Ps I promise no more animal pictures next month.

*Author of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age