Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Wikis – wickedly clever, underused learning tool

A few years ago Wikipedia was academia’s bête noir, now almost everyone uses it, including academics and students. It’s the biggest, best and most used knowledge base in the history of our species. But few know about the many wikis that are used for learning around subjects, courses, and projects, the wiki workhorses. Fewer still know about the wikis on the web around people’s hobbies and enthusiasms. The world of Wikis is far more diverse than Wikipedia alone.
Wikipedia – the start line not the finish
The impact of Wikipedia on learning is incalculable. Too often attention is drawn to the idea that it creates a ‘cut and paste’ culture of plagiarism. This has a grain of truth but didn’t we always walk up and down library shelves for books, then do the same thing? For me the great advantages are the speed and convenience of getting to something as useful as a Wikipedia page as a starting point. For most it is the first door you open to knowledge on a topic, a reasonably short and structured introduction. Once through, you can move out of that room and explore the edifice that lies behind by following up citations, links, images, videos, articles, academic papers, books and so on. Wikipedia is the start line not the finish.
Wikipedia and knowledge
With Wikipedia, the printed encyclopedia industry was dead. It is not just its size that matters. It completely screwed the paper encyclopedia industry because it was dynamic, easily updated and made distinctions between levels of knowledge: certain knowledge, knowledge that needed citations and knowledge that was open to discussion. Any epistemologist will tell you that knowledge is not a fixed entity but a moving feast, affected by new research and new findings. Some, such as Quine, go as far as saying that all knowledge is corrigible and therefore subject to potential revision. Wikipedia doesn’t pretend to be absolutist, it knows that what it knows should be open to scrutiny.
Wikis in learning
There’s lots of talk in learning about collaborative skills but action is rarer. A wiki is a strongly collaborative medium that forces people to be collaborative. More than this, it teaches you to be collaborative within a set of rules, where negotiation, decision making and eventual agreement are necessary. It also forces you to reflect on the very nature of collaboration in terms of the roles of individuals within a process.
It also teaches good writing and editorial skills. A good wiki must be pitched at the potential audience, have a consistent voice, be concise, accurate and error free. It may also teach good research skills in terms of quality links and precise citations. There is an in-built peer-process at work here, as contributors have to critique the contributions of others.
The advantage of a wiki over a blog is the structure, menu and navigation of a wiki is easier for a wide range of interested users. Then there’s the widgets you can add embed in educational wikis, such as calendars, videos, slide shows, polls, and spreadsheets. There’s even a Wiki on how to use Wikisin education, with loads of resources, examples and discussions.
Teacher wikis
A Wiki is content focussed. It works when a group of people want to create content around a topic. This can be a group of experts, teachers, trainers or lecturers who want to collaborate to come up with an expert perspective on a specific subject, project, course or institution. Here’s an example on using blogs for learning, another in ICT resources for teachers. They exist at all levels in education from primary schools to Universities.
When a Wiki is used to build a course or course materials, it has the advantage of containing relevant content, links, reading lists, exams and so on, which can be updated when necessary or when a new member of staff joins. Some have even used Wikis as alternative to the more common VLE, as they are extremely open, flexible and updatable.
Student wikis
A group of students can also be set the task of building a Wiki as part of their learning. For students there’s a double dividend, the content as well as the skills acquired in contributing collaboratively to the wiki. You really do get to grips with as a subject when you have to write about it for use by others in a collaborative environment.
As all edits are logged, you can assess the collaborative contributions by different students, identify non-contributing students, identify lack of evidence, need for citations and suggest suitable directions. Peer review assignments can also be handled through Wikis, where specific students are assigned to review other students work.
You can, of course, get students to contribute to Wikipedia, which always creates a buzz and sense of achievement.  Wikipedia, or other Wikis, can therefore be used as an assignment tool, where students are asked to review a page(s) identifying weaknesses, a lack of citations and even implement improvements. Wikipedia even has a page devoted to this task.
One free resource, that has been a boon to educators, is Wikispaces, which has hundreds of thousands of educational wikis. It’s easy to get started with a topic based wiki, class schedules, homework, notices for parents, and showcases of student work and you can make it as private or public as you wish.
Wikis & informal learning
Never heard of Wikia? Astonishing though Wikipedia is, Wikia is just as interesting from a learning point of view. In this particular corner of the wikisphere, the sheer enthusiasm of fans for their subjects often spills over into fanaticism. It has over a quarter of a million communities on people’s passions, whether it be lifestyle, news, games, culture or entertainment. It is people doing it for the fun of it, the funhouse of the wikisphere, with a lot more detail for fans of a topic than a typical Wikipedia article. It was also started by Jimmy Wales and operates under a copyleft licence – free to distribute and modify.
Wikis are wickedly clever. Jimmy Wales should get a Nobel Prize for Wikipedia, as it is probably the most powerful learning resource ever created. Yet wikis in education are more than just reference tools for flat knowledge. Like blogs they are content-driven but more collaborative and structured than blogs. They offer a free way of publishing for teachers and students as well as a way of building collaboration, negotiation, research and editorial skills. The wonderful world of wikis is one of those technical surprises. It exploded unpredictably onto the scene and no one foresaw the scale of Wikipedia’s success or its dramatic impact on education.

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Monday, December 03, 2012

City & Guilds acquire Kineo - a meeting of minds (2+2=5)

City & Guilds, the UK’s premier brand in vocational education, have bought Kineo, the UKs premier brand for LMS and content. First, I have to say that I know both sides well. I’m on the Council of City & Guilds, and I know the guys at Kineo very well, as I hired them all. They were my management team at Epic and left at around the time I left Epic, when it was sold. They’re smart people who had a smart idea (rapid e-learning and commercialise Moodle). It's great to see two UK organisations get serious about building something bigger in the vocational market.
What does it mean?
This is a huge boost for vocational learning in the UK, both in organisations and colleges, as C&G now have a smart technology platform and production house for deliverables straight to employers, including technology, consultancy and content. It has also given C&G a much larger international profile and reach for their qualifications and future deliverables. This is all about moving towards real deliverables over and above accreditation. This is a 2+2=5 deal.
Meeting of minds
This is also a meeting of minds as they’ve been working together for a while on real projects. City & Guilds have Kirstie Donnelly and a good technical team that are keen to innovate. They’re already using e-volve and e-logbooks as well as creating tablet content and m-learning apps. Kineo are used to responsive deign across all platforms and can bring content to life. Totara has proved itself as a LMS with teeth (I assume that City & Guilds have also acquired Kineo’s minority share of Totara). For existing customers it should be business as usual.
What’s important here is that C&G don’t crush the entrepreneurial spirit of Kineo and that they embrace the technology and go on to turn C&G into the organisation it could be. So well done Chris Jones, Kirstie Donnelly and the team at C&G and well done to Steve Rayson and his team at Kineo.

See press release here.

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Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Big Debate – Berlin Educa - ban diplomas and degrees!

‘This house proposes a ban on diplomas and degrees’ –sounds extreme, and since I was arguing FOR the motion to a large audience,who make their living from teaching, designing an delivering diplomas and degrees, I woke up the night before with the thought that I’d be lucky to get any votes at all! Here’s what happened.
It was two against two. Jef Staes and I against Sue Martin and Kirstie Donnelly.
We are all sheep
Jef Staes (my partner) argued, using a brilliant set of posters, which he got members of the audience to reveal one by one (including Jay Cross), that we had become sheep; parents, pupils, teachers, lecturers, politicians - all marching our kids through a process that doesn’t deliver. We have 2D teaching and 2D testing that leads towards 2D thinking and 2D people who live and work in a 3D world. Where’s the passion? Where’s the real competences? It was witty and delivered with his characteristic flair.
7 FAILS! (when diplomas & degrees go bad)
I went for the 7 fails I’d give the system if I were awarding it a qualification.
FAIL 1: Qualifications-led culture has crashed
The London riots by disenfranchised youth, riots in Greece with 55% youth unemployment, riots in Spain with 53% unemployment, the same in Portugal, now Italy with 35% youth unemployment. Meanwhile the graduates financiers, bankers and politicians who caused this mess remain untouched and immune. Inequalities and hardship are rising. Education, in its current form has failed. Similarly in the Arab world, where the Arab Spring was led by young people suffering from unemployment in the face of nepotism and corruption. This is a serious issue, not just a debating point. The massive increase in investment in education and testing has led to this position. We don’t have a qualifications shortage, we have a skills shortage.
FAIL 2: Teach what is easy to test
This slide tells you everything you need to know about the failure in assessment. First, the obsession with maths. Who really does need to know algebra and Pythagoras Theorem? I’m 56 years old and never once had to use it, except I the context of my kids’ homework. Secondly, the question can be answered in many ways, by guessing, drawing it to scale, knowing the 3/4/5 triangle rule and lastly, the most awkward solution, Pythagoras Theorem.
This slide tells you everything you need to know about the alternative. The kid who answered is exactly the sort of person I and most employers admire and would want to hire. He or she is way smart, innovative, a touch of humour, lateral thinking, good communicator and a  REAL problem solver. It’s borderline genius. Yet look at the teachers ‘red’ mark. RED pen, which has its origins in the deficit side of a ledger. No marks. Marking is a plague in education. It has replaced meaningful, formative feedback and acts as an end point – failure for most and even for those who get good scores a sign that they’ve achieved competence, even though they scored only 80%. What abut the other 20%?
What’s more, testing abstract knowledge completely ignores what we’ve known about for centuries in the psychology of learning, that we learn by doing and that many competences need to be tested by showing that you can DO something. Essays test an extremely narrow skillset. In any case, as we still expect pupils and students t sit exams using pen and paper, they test almost nothing but memory. No one writes first drafts that are any good. The essence of good writing is redraft in, reordering, shortening, changing words – so let them use word processors. When you don’t they MEMORISE essays.
FAIL 3:International arms race in assessment
Whole countries are now being assessed and seeing themselves as having failed. This deficit view of education has been caused by the leaning tower of PISA, with its obsession with maths and infected politicians with assessments. Test them till they bleed!
FAIL 4: Distorts teaching, learning & life
We know that it’s now all about teaching to the test. Around the world we’re tutoring our kids into submission, turning them OFF subjects and ON to learning how to simply pass exams. Memorisation, cramming, even drugs to get you those pieces of paper. Go to Hong Kong and see the hideous posters on hoardings and buses for celebrity tutors and read about the kids who are being tutored until the early hours of the morning and falling asleep on their desks at school. Entire families are subjecting themselves to stress leading to anger and conflict because of the paper pressure. Parents against children, parents against teachers, students against teachers. No one is winning here, except the very few who get the most paper, then go onto screw the rest of us over. The system is distorting learning, teaching and life itself. Life is NOT a course!
We all leave school and never go near qualifications again. Most learning is informal and even formal learning (training) in organisations is rarely accredited. I spent most of my adult life delivering online learning and almost nothing was accredited. Adults need to be trusted not subjected to primitive testing (usually of short-term memory – read Ebbinghaus).
FAIL 5: Holds back adult education
When I was a Trustee at Learndirect I saw how we could get people back learning through good online work on numeracy and literacy but many would fail to turn up for the physical assessments in colleges, as those places were associated with their past failure. Governments have become obsessed with testing as they think it shows progress – it doesn’t, it shows that we teach to the test.
FAIL 6: Qualifications bubble?
When Peter Thiel put forward his argument that HE is now a bobble waiting to burst, he wasn’t far wrong. The price of a degree has been rising way beyond the rise in inflation or even house prices – that spells trouble. Student loan debt is now well past credit card debt in the US. For the first time in history the number of jobless workers over 25 have been to college. This has all the signs of being a bubble. More worrying is the recent research by Arum that shows how students are spending more and more money but doing lass and less serious study at University. Their work on problem solving, writing and critical skills, shows a worrying lack of improvement
FAIL 7: Testing for profit
Finally I pointed out that Sue, my first opponent, was the Global Certification Director for SAP. She is in the BUSINESS of SELLING certification that locks people into her company software. Kirtsie works for City & Guilds, the UKs largest certification body in vocational learning. To be honest I have some sympathy with Kirtsie, as I’m on the Council of that organisation (unpaid) and feel that vocational learning has been screwed over by excessive University funding. That’s what’s got us into this mess. My final act was to ask the audience of they knew who the Platinum Sponsor for the conference was? Answer – PEARSON – I rested my case!
We won by a comfortable margin.
These debates really enliven conferences and, I think, make people think and reflect beyond the normal presentation format. The audience participation was fantastic and the whole event felt like something really different and worthwhile. Every conference organiser should take note. Forget the endless presentations, landfill black bags. Push those boundaries with real discussion and debate.
Sue, Kirstie, Jef and I are still al good friends and thanks to the audience for such great contributions. It was a huge amount of fun.

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