Wednesday, April 30, 2014

‘Mindfulness’ yet another mindless fad in education

There’s a new fad on the block being forced on our kids – mindfulness (or wellbeing). In truth, it’s not new at all. It goes back to Buddhism, Freud, then Rogers and the relentless effort to get therapeutic theory into education. But there’s plenty of reasons for rejecting this particular manifestation of mindful madness.
1. Adult fixations foisted on kids
Mindfulness is just another example of adults taking their new-age, adult fixations and forcing them on the young. It’s not as if kids take naturally to such unnatural behaviours as they are naturally exuberant. Education should be about opening up young minds not forcing them to do things that faddish adults think is right for them.
2. Ill-defined
I’ve been asking people in the counseling and therapy business what ‘mindfulness’ is and the replies, even from theose who have been on the training courses, are more than a little confusing. Some relate it directly to Buddhist meditation, others to reflection on your physiological processes, others to internal cognitive reflection. In fact it seemed somewhat contradictory, a stilling of the mind yet a strong sense of presence or attention to self using a selfless, meditation-based practice. There’s no consistency as mindfulness is many things to many people. This is always a worry and often a sign that all is not well with a practice. It reminds me of the theoretical mess that is NLP.
3. Enforced silence
Education is about both mind and body but that means being alive and kicking, socialising with others through play, games and sport. Kids are lively and locking them up for most of the day in classrooms, often accompanied by enforced silence, is bad enough, without forcing them to sit in even more complete, communal silence. They are gloriously alive at that age and should play and learn, be lively and curious, not mimic artificial, adult fads.
4. Surfeit of over-reflection
Is internalizing at this age such a great thing? One of the problems with children and especially teenagers is over-reflection. They already have a surfeit. Peer pressure often forces them to reflect too much on the wrong things, leading to a spiral of negative reflection, even depression. It is often a destructive, not creative, force at this age. Keep their minds on what matters, not obsessive internalized reflection.
5. Mindless sheep
Mindfulness plays a neat trick. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing as it is actually mindless meditation under the guise of mindful attention. What we need is more mindful, external attention on learning, teachers and other people in learning. This means getting involved, not idle internalizing. It means being alert and attentive, as we know with certainty that outward-looking, psychological attention is a necessary condition for learning. The sort of internal attention that is needed for learning is to do with the coding, elaboration, scene setting, deep processing and practice, especially spaced practice, that leads to cognitive improvement.
6. Bandwagon
Mindfulness has all the hallmarks of a fad; not evidence-based (in terms of learning), promoted by celebrities and suddenly erupts as the ‘next big thing’. Believe me, mindfulness will have been long forgotten in a couple of years time, so let’s cut that short and dump it now, before we waste even more time on yet another fad.
7. Dangerous damage
Learning styles, L/R brain theory, whole word literacy, Brain Gym, playing Mozart while kids learn – I saw this stuff served up in real schools, driven by nothing more than the need for ‘fillers’ in ill-organised INSET days. Education does itself no favours by snatching at these crazes. It opens teachers and the educational system up to the sort of unnecessary mocking that their enemies adore.

Friday, April 18, 2014

20 reasons why Stanford Prof thinks video lectures self-evidently better

The lecture video delivers me in a way the student has complete control over, making it self-evidently better.” Says Stanford’s Professor of Mathematics Keith Devlin. He’s a MOOC veteran, who delivers Stanford’s ‘Introduction to Mathematical Thinking’ on Coursera. We have to understand is why this is so. What makes a recorded lecture ‘self-evidently better’. 

This was confirmed by a friend of mine who went back to do a Masters Degree at the LSE and found that he's questioning going to lectures at all, as the recorded versions are better. He can take detailed notes, reflect more and generally watches most of them at x 1.25 speed. His argument is that recorded lectures are therefore better than live lectures. When I presented these and the following arguments at a technology in Higher Education conference back in the day, I had people walk out on me.... still one of my proudest moneys as a speaker, and at 28,000 views the YouTube version proved my point. Quite apart from the many pedagogic arguments about lectures full stop - one that they are too long (actually arbitrarily long, as they're only an hour because the Sumerians had a base-6 number system), and passive, there are plenty of other arguments for recorded lectures.

So what are the advantages of recorded lectures?

1. Available 24/7
2. Rewind if your attention drops
3. Rewind if you didn’t understand
4. Rewind if English is your second language
5. Pause if you want to look something up
6. Access to vast online resources on same device 
7. Pause to take good notes 
8. Fast forward (even 1.25 speed), if known or irrelevant 
9. Watch several times for increased retention
10. Watch when in right attentive state for learning
11. Watch if you have been ill
12. Watch for revision as exam approaches
13. Not wasting time travelling to and from lecture
14. Academic can focus on tutoring and feedback
15. Multiple uses in courses, MOOCs etc.
16. Data gathered on who, what, when watched
17. Can be subtitled for the deaf
18. Can be translated and subtitled
19. Can be delivered online at almost no cost

20. Can be viewed on many devices
Devlin’s refreshingly honest and revealing article on teaching online goes on to explain that there are deeper pedagogic advantages.

Better than regular classes
Devlin thinks that students “get a version of that close, one-on-one instruction that they absolutely do not get in a regular class of any size”. He notes that many students feel intimidated in speaking back to academics as they have “insufficient confidence” and thinks that “there is good reason to believe that human connection through social media may be enough to have whatever effect is provided by the real thing”. In truth, he thinks that requested feedback could be provided, where necessary, and, in fact “shy students can perform much better in an online environment”.

Closer connection
As Devlin explains, counter-intuitively, “The fact is, a student taking my MOOC can make a closer connection with me than if they were in a class of more than 25 or so students, and certainly more than in a class of 250.”  He reminds us of a fact often ignored in the debate, that “in a large class, the student is not going to get my individual attention, so there is no loss there in learning in a MOOC, so a MOOC seems to offer more of me than a student would get in a regular, large class”.

Interestingly, Devlin designed the course and the style of presentation around this sense of intimacy. “I set out to create that same sense of the student sitting alongside me, one-on-one. If you can pull it off, it’s powerful. In particular, if you can create that feeling of intimate human connection, the student will overlook a lot of imperfections and problems.”

Time and time again (not always) I have experienced, and heard from other MOOCers, about the intimacy of the academic teaching in MOOCs. I first came across it in the Thrun AI course and for me it is the hallmark of a good course. Devlin is a reflective teacher, who waited until he had gone through the experience of teaching a MOOC before making these observations. His full article can be found here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

MOOCs: Coursera moves towards massive revenues on certification

For all of those who say that MOOCs can’t be monetized, Coursera’s Signature Track is proving them wrong. After 700 years, Universities still struggle with monetization and funding models and most would agree that the current systems in the developed world are in a mess, of not broken. Here’s a system that not only matches demand with supply, but provides a way to match payment to product. Not only that, the cost for the course is free at the point of delivery, and because so many participate, it’s dirt cheap for assessment and certification.
Real revenues
Coursera took one year to hit $1 million on revenues from certification, 3 months to hit $2 million (Feb 14) and now report $4 million (Apr 14), that’s $2 million in the following two months. Impressive compound growth. This has been achieved through their Coursera certificate track, which, at $30-$100 per course, has seen an average 1.2% conversion rate double up to the current average of 2.4%, giving them $4 mlllion, driven by demand from employers. Note this last observation – ‘driven by employers’.
Employer demand
This week also saw some interesting research from Duke on the positive attitudes employers have towards MOOCs. This is important, as this is the sort of demand that seems to be fueling the unending interest in MOOCs. Despite what the nay-sayers say, people keep on taking them and keep on making them.
Coursera’s Signature Track
What makes Coursera’s Signature Track sing, is the cleverness of the software, not human assessment.
Biometric typing
When you register for Signature Track, you do some typing on your keyboard and it records your typing pattern, a sort of ‘fingersprint’. This is smart and it works.
Webcam photo
In addition, you take a picture of yourself on your webcam. Easy.
Photo of ID
You then take a webcam photo of your picture ID (driver's license, passport, national ID card, state or province ID card and international ID documents).These photos are securely stored and deleted once your identity is confirmed.  When you submit coursework you submit a matching typing sample and photograph to confirm your identity. This leads to a verified certificate. You’ve got to admit that this is getting places. In addition, you can also take a proctored exam, online or offline.
Shareable course records
On top of this, there’s Sharable Course Records, where you can share your electronic course records with employers, educational institutions, or anyone else through a unique, secure URL. Note that word ‘employers’ sneaking in.
Financial aid
There’s even some money available if you can show real need.
Sequenced MOOCs
Both Coursera and EdX also offer certification for sequences of MOOCs. This is interesting as it is a direct challenge to the traditional degree. Rather than wait for the system to accept them, they’re creating their own ecosystem of acceptance. Way to go.
MOOCs are proving to be a vast sandbox for real world experiments and research. The fact that they are ‘Massive’ helps, as they have the numbers. The fact that they are driven towards real world success, and not just the publication of paper research gives them the imperative to get things done. Right across the board, MOOCs are showing us some interesting new strategic models, such as ‘free at point of delivery’ and ‘openness’ as well as tactical advances, such as new ways to do video for learning, P2P review and online assessment.

But what is really interesting is the matching of learners with employers. Thrun may have been the first to spot the fact that MOOCs are not about HE but people who want real skills and personal development. Thrun and Norvig, were not academics, and understand what the real world needs in terms of highly skilled people. The fact that Coursera, Udacity and EdX have all been properly capitalised gives them a real advantage in terms of platform development, innovation and marketing. My fear is that Futurelearn didn’t learn that lesson and built what looks like a rather thin platform, while European efforts, like EMMA, seem structured to fail, with too many inexperienced partners in too many countries doing too many pilots.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

MOOCs: Research (Duke) shows employers love ‘em

Despite the sneers from a minority of academics, people continue to make and take them. The MOOC phenomenon is clearly driven by demand, and we can now add ‘employer needs’ to that demand.
Positive reactions
Research from Duke University and RTI International, funded by the Gates Foundation, shows that employers are positive about MOOCs for recruitment, hiring and professional development. In ‘The Employer Potential of MOOCs  (A Survey of Human Resource Professionals’ Thinking on MOOCs ) nearly 400  employers were researched from November 2013 and January 2014. Many hadn’t heard of MOOCs but even those who had the idea explained to them for the first time, 57% said they could see themselves using MOOCs for recruitment. When hiring, nearly 75% said they would treat job-related MOOCs positively. This was especially true of businesses, communications organisations and in education. While some were already using MOOCs, 71% could see their organisations using them in the future. This positive reaction was seen across all sectors.
7 indicators for employers
I can see why, as someone who was an employer for many years, they are seen positively. Taking MOOCs says something about you as a person. What takes them beyond the ‘rite of passage’ degree course are several impressive indicators:
1. Motivated learner
2. Self-starter
3. Organised
4. Perseverance
5. Interested in own personal development
6. Wants relevant knowledge & skills
7. Completer
What came through in the responses was a keen eye, not just for the course but what it indicates about a potential or existing employee.
If [an applicant] is trying to educate themselves, it says something about the individual. [It shows that individual wants] to stay on top of what is going on in their field…
[I] see it as someone who wants to further their education and to do more themselves, to develop themselves (to develop) a higher emotional intelligence.”
I can see people who want to advance, who need to advance their education. We have a tuition reimbursement program but it is limited. If someone thought that they could go online and take a course on something or take classes for certification I think people WOULD really jump on it.”
MOOCs tend to be focused, and practical courses, so the employer gets to see a specific set of skills acquired by the potential employee or employee.
Professional development
Some were already using MOOCs for CPD, and 71% could see their organisations using them in the future.
[MOOCs have been] a great opportunity to provide variety and content to staff ... [We] made our staff aware of those opportunities to tailor learning to different topics they are interested in.
 We’re always looking for ways and options for team members to engage in ongoing learning to help the business grow. We have a small internal training and [human resources] staff; we’re only going to be able to deliver so much content. We know we’re not going to be the subject matter experts. We’ve encouraged people to have their own exploratory learning experience.
It could be applicable to everyone. Low level support staff [could take] classes on how to be more organized and have better time management ... all the way up

It’s early days, and even though many hadn’t heard of MOOCs, when they did, they were impressed. MOOCs solve the sort of problems employers have long complained about on recruitment, hiring and professional development. They are one solution to the crisis of relevance in higher education, where a gap between supply and demand has, for many reasons, led to a loss of faith in the traditional degree course. Massively expensive, one intake a year, fixed location, fixed time courses, are seen by many as anachronistic. MOOCs not only bridge that gap, the provide an on-going solution to the skills gaps within organisations. All round this is a win-win–win-win situation, for Higher education, people looking for work, employers and employee looks set to continue.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Anders Ericsson: practice, practice, practice

Anders Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist and expert on memory, expertise and the role of ‘deliberate’ practice. He is regarded as the father of a model of expertise in which experts are shaped, not by talent but the amount and type of practice, typically 10,000 hours, they employ in becoming experts.
Memory and retrieval cues
Ericsson’s work on memory, specifically the role of working memory, and practice, has led to the training of students to remember an astonishing 100 digits. In particular he explored the role of role of working memory in experts and high performers. He proposes a model of memory where experts use ‘retrieval cues’ in working memory that give access to long-term memory. This skilled memory theory has been tested in domains such as mental calculation, medical diagnosis, and chess.
Classic study on practice
Anders Ericsson’s study on musicians at the Berlin Academy of Music is a classic. He put the violinists into three groups:
Best -  word-class soloists
Good – professional musicians
OK – music teachers
Then he asked them about how often they had practiced. All started at around age five and had a similar pattern of practice in those first few years of about 2-3 hours a week.  Thereafter differences arose, so that by age twenty:
Best -  word-class soloists – 10,000 hours
Good – professional musicians – 8,000 hours
OK – music teachers – 4,000 hours
He then looked at amateur pianists and found that they practiced around 3 hours a week, clocking up around 2000 hours by age twenty. How do you get to Carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice.
Another interesting aspect of his study was the complete absence of ‘natural talent’. There were no professionals who hadn’t practiced to the higher level and, just as interesting, none that had practiced this amount and failed. Talent seemed almost absent, hard work produced results.
Deliberate practice
Ericsson has explored the role of practice, not only in sport and music but also in areas where different cognitive skills are employed, such as chess and medicine. Several dimensions have been identified as characterising ‘deliberate’ practice, as opposed to simple repeated practice.
1. Concentration
Psychological attention and focus is vital, as deliberate practice has to move beyond repetition to pushing oneself incrementally beyond what has been achieved.
2. Chunk skills
It is not that practice alone matters but that a certain type of practice matters. More rapid improvement occurs if the learner breaks tasks down into chunked skills and focuses on improve on each component.
3. Feedback & error
It is also important to focus on feedback, either from the learner’s own observations or from a coach. Feedback matters, as it is from errors that one learns the most. Overcoming observed errors is the means of increasing skills. Failure, therefore lies at the heart of deliberate practice.
4. Increase challenge
Fourthlyly, learners must increase the level of challenge to accelerate the power of practice. This can be achieved by getting faster, going for longer and simply making the task incrementally more difficult, beyond your comfort zone.
Experts bred not born
Education, training and e-learning have an emphasis on knowledge that, on the whole, ignores deliberate practice. Opportunities for deliberate practice are largely absent from learning delivery, except where spaced-practice, simulations or opportunities for practice in the real world are built in to the process.
Talent management myth
Despite the evidence that ‘deliberate practice’ is the real cause behind success, the ‘talent’ model is still common, in teaching, the perception that learners’ progress through talent and not effort. This, many argue, holds back learners and results in many giving up prematurely. Too many parents and teachers still praise the child and not the work. This problem is compounded by the language of ‘talented and gifted’ backed up with unreliable evidence, selective recall, false memories and biases. Research is the answer to bad reporting and Ericsson has been instrumental in providing that evidence.
A welcome antidote to social constructivist theories, Ericsson focuses on the mind, memory and deliberate practice as the road to successful learning. Far from being an advocate of rote learning, he is an advocate of sophisticated, incremental steps in learning, with feedback and challenge, that lead to increased performance. This is all too often absent in learning, whether in the acquisition of knowledge or skills.
Ericsson, K. Anders, Krampe, Ralf Th. and Tesch-Romer. Clemens (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406
Ericsson, Anders K.; Kintsch, W. (1995). "Long-term working memory". Psychological Review 102 (2): 211–245.
Ericsson, Anders K.; Charness, Neil; Feltovich, Paul; Hoffman, Robert R. (2006). Cambridge handbook on expertise and expert performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Ericsson, Anders K.; Prietula, Michael J.; Cokely, Edward T. (2007). "The Making of an Expert". Harvard Business Review (July–August 2007).

Ericsson, Anders K.; Roring, Roy W.; Nandagopal, Kiruthiga (2007). "Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance". High Ability Studies.