Friday, April 24, 2020

Research, Remote or Otherwise (plus 3 geese)

Some really good announcements on the research front this week from the federal government, including ample new support for COVID-19 medical research and vaccine development in addition to Support for students and new grads affected by COVID-19 and support from the granting councils for research assistants to extend research scholarships, grants and fellowships via various programs for several months.

There is also an additional $250M in funding for firms to access via the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP). The Logic's overview (paywall alert) also details changes to the SR&ED (mainly halting audits) that Minister Bains has outlined in the COIVD response package to supporting firms in Canada. One thing that should be done is to get the SR&ED program in line with its original terms and conditions and support more experimental development activities - the ED part of the SR&ED that has historically been ignored by those administering the program. This singular failure of the way in which SR&ED is administered needs an urgent fix now as we look to support firms to pivot and reframe their businesses in a COVID context. 

This new funding will go a long way to ensuring that we can continue supporting research as much as is practicable while some facilities are closed, and to pivoting into remote research where this is feasible. There are also new avenues of research opening up, for example in looking at ways in which we are collectively navigating the changes and challenges before us, from remote learning to remote systems and service delivery, through to how culture and cultural production is being adapted to mental health and well being. 

The opportunity afforded here is to enable Canadian researchers to help not only lead the world in navigating the immediate public health crisis, but also in adaptation of the economy. And speaking of local adaptation, below is a particularly Canadian adaptation to the 2 meter physical distancing rule - stay three geese apart!

COVID-19 sign from Toronto's Beaches that says Do Your Part. Stay Apart. The length of 3 geese.





Saturday, April 11, 2020

Instructional Design for Extensible Online Learning

"In those tumultuous and kinetic times, the time of actualised desire, I myself had only one desire. And that was, for everything to stop.”

Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman


Angela Carter’s fin de si├Ęcle science fiction novel presages an approximation of where we now find ourselves. The COVID-19 crisis has led to physical distancing and isolation from social context, with a concomitant social media “exercise in status display” taking hold in some quarters.

For postsecondary education we are told that “Universities, colleges face potential budget crunch as they assess impact of COVID-19 on international student enrolment.” This is an important reminder to the fragility of the economic basis in which we operate, namely the reliance on international student recruitment to fund the enterprise.

There is some hope: “time spent in an online course would count toward the time in Canada required to earn a work permit.” This is an important development that will aid our modelling of how we emerge from the current constraints, and into the mesocosm--an experimental enclosure--that will mediate and mitigate physical distancing in the time it takes to create a COVID-19 vaccine.

Scenario modelling could use a 50% probability basis for unpacking how we will return to in situ work. That is: we have a 50% chance of returning to face-to-face learning in September. And within this, that we will have to accommodate 50% less students on campus. This latter could be because of declining enrolments or physical distancing rules.

Basically this means we don’t know, but this should not stop us from modelling out the differing types of scenarios. We should do this while standing up the learning supports to enact a more flexible, distributed learning. Because either way, more remote learning is in our collective future.

Government and health leaders are advising that the current physical distancing practices will last months. This uncertainty, coupled with the COVID-19 experience of other jurisdictions, suggests that universities and colleges need to prepare not just for the long-term impact of the current physical distancing practices, but also for shorter-term approaches to address the continued need for physical distancing and isolation. Responsible, responsive curricula development necessitates significant changes to and adaptations of curriculum delivery, such as this is feasible within our programs, and which ensures that we collectively continue to provide positive teaching and learning experiences. This can be done while supporting and protecting faculty autonomy and prioritizing effective pedagogy.

Flexible learning is an approach that blends online (synchronous; asynchronous) teaching and learning with face to face (F2F) or in situ learning. While F2F learning will not be feasible in the short to medium term, we can start to anticipate a gradual return to this as it is imperative to reifying skill and competency development.

Alex Usher offers a good take on a post-pandemic collective effort in which the sector has an opportunity to collaborate on wider online learning development. This is smart--and optimistic--thinking. More and effective cooperation will help us build a system in Canada that can ensure students are provided with the appropriate scaffolding for learning now coupled with the ongoing iteration and development of a more robust realm of learning across sectors and levels. (As an aside, the National Research Council once had a whole research unit dedicated to e-learning, including the development of technologies, metadata standards; it was disbanded in 2006 or so).

Think of this as a way to offer a seamless student experience and a single point of entry into learning capable of bridging initial engagement to learning to employment to community building through alumni. Effective online learning as a core component of the larger pedagogical support structure will help us teach the skills and competencies that our learners will put into practice. This is the essence of “extensible online learning, where the goals of skills transference are made explicit in relation to online learning, and these skills are in fact transferred into practice” (Luke et al 2009).

There are various components to consider in the migration or transition into flexible learning:

1. Determining courses and course components that can be accommodated online
This will highlight curricula strengths, and it provides an opportunity to disaggregate programs and courses into microcredentials that can be stacked in potentially creative ways to achieve learning outcomes. This disaggregation will be important for our 50-50 scenario modelling.

2. Sequencing / Flexibility to continue delivering small–group f2f learning 
A modular, flexible learning approach will not only support new modes of teaching and learning but also allow us to continue to deliver core curricula. Online components of courses can be staged or sequenced to work in conjunction with in situ learning. This extensible online learning will help us achieve learning outcomes in a staged way, and also help us stage in situ learning with less people in one place at one time as need be.

3. Matching just-in-time remedial detours to support in situ learning
Having online content readily available and accessible and shareable via a robust learning object repository will enable learners to access content when and as needed to support in situ learning.

4. Exploring integration with other curricular models and systems provincially, nationally and even internationally 
By supporting an expanded set of learning approaches and curricular options for students, there is significant opportunity to explore integration of other systems, learning objects, courses, media etc, as per Usher’s point about collaborating to compete togethereCampus Ontario's Extend is one good example of this.

5. Ensuring iterative, agile development and evaluation
Develop and deploy evaluation instruments within courses that conduct formative and summative assessment on learning outcomes, in addition to faculty and student satisfaction, for continuous quality improvement. Online learning has been around for three decades at least. This is an unprecedented opportunity to not only leverage the research and insights gained through this time, but also to conduct ongoing research and evaluation of how best to stand up flexible learning.

Doug Saunders, writing in the Globe and Mail, reminds us of another science fiction writer, William Gibson, and the premise of “The Jackpot” that underwrites Gibson’s stories: “It’s not a big bang, but rather a lethal spiral of preventable disasters abetted by incompetent leadership and economic contraction.” “But there is hope” Saunders reminds us, in that “During this crisis, and in its long recovery, it would be a terrible waste if we did not spend in ways that also make the world a cleaner and more resilient place. If we have these higher goals in mind, though, we can turn a fatal spiral into a hopeful one.”










Friday, March 27, 2020

From anytime, anywhere, to all the time, everywhere

Many years ago (2001 in fact) I read a very insightful piece by Phil Agre: Welcome to the Always-On World. This piece has been on my mind of late as the world transitions into remote work. I am reminded of something a student once said - or rather posted in an online course I was teaching back in 2003 or so (in which I was referencing the above article). We were discussing the pros and cons about online learning, and talking about the phrase being bandied about then of the Internet enabling learning anytime, anywhere. This student said online learning is more like all the time, everywhere. 

While we all realize that working from home brings its own challenges - not to mention that it has amplified issues of accessibility, access and broader digital literacy - we are all realizing that it is important to have some boundaries, mostly time-based, but habitual as well. And in many respects learning all the time everywhere is what we do anyway. It is an apt representation of what we now call experiential learning. What the Internet adds is the connection to wider communities - communities of learning, communities of interest, and communities of practice. We are all engaging in some form of "legitimate peripheral participation" in which learning happens with our peers.

For those of us in post-secondary education making a wholesale transition into more online learning, as much to enable students to salvage current semesters as to scaffold the current reality into the new normal. In making this transition we have to recognize that not everything can be taught online, but we can - and we should - leverage the wider capabilities that online learning affords in order to support skills development and digital literacy more broadly.

This means we need to engage the cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning modalities, to help learners move from head, to heart to hand - to link thinking, with doing, and to do so with care.

I've been working on updating a model of flexible learning developed via research on this topic over the past couple of decades.


Diagram showing a circular model of flexible learning, connecting the conspicuous contribution of the academic enterprise with community learning and in situ making.




Monday, March 23, 2020

The skills that are in high demand are those most difficult to teach online

Global pandemic planning has led to emphasis on online learning to ensure that students can continue to learn and finish the current term. But maker skills, which are now more than ever in demand, are the most difficult to teach online. This conundrum underlies the transition to a new, social-distancing normal.

The current crisis has amplified a downside of globalization: the interconnectivity of market production has for the past several decades led to the hollowing out of manufacturing capability. Since the early years of the last decade there have been calls for and moves toward a reshoring of manufacturing--largely a result of a lack of jobs and the social risks of insufficient employment for large swathes of the population. This in turn has led to a commensurate focus on the skills and competencies associated with being able to build and make things. And herein lies the main irony of where we are in education: the skills that are in high demand are those most difficult to teach online.

As the global community starts to grasp the magnitude of the challenges we are collectively facing those of us in universities and colleges are starting to plan for unknown event horizons, including when to restart in-person instruction. While it is not feasible to think that whole societies can remain in socially distant quasi-isolation indefinitely, we are witnessing a wholesale move towards more online, distributed, or flexible teaching and learning. This means thinking through how we can translate educational outcomes adapted for distributed teaching and learning. It also means figuring how we might prioritize programming to account for and accommodate those whose programs have been disrupted. We'll need to work out the best means to stage online back into in-person engagements, and to adapt in situ learning to the inevitable new guidelines or rules around social distancing.

Throughout this it occurs to me that those same goals of globalization--of distributing the means of production to lower cost regions--has led to precisely some of the problems we face in online education. Everything from engineering to design to health care will have to adapt in the short term, which may lead to positive changes over the long term. Now is the time to focus on how effective pedagogy can drive the use of any technology, and to heed the decades of research into teaching and learning, particularly as mediated through technologies like the Internet.