Thursday, February 21, 2013

Should 'real' students do an online course on the side?

Student doing online class, mooc

 Boost your cv with a mooc. Photograph: Alamy

Universities have started giving away their content free as "massive open online courses", with the satisfyingly ridiculous acronym mooc (I challenge you to say it three times with a straight face).

Eleven top UK universities recently announced they were joining the Open University to launch FutureLearn, in a bid to catch up with the elite US institutions that have led the way in teaching huge numbers online.

It all sounds great for people who, for one reason or another, can't go to a traditional university. But do moocs have anything to offer students already studying at a bricks-and-mortar institution? People like me, who hate the niggling feeling that they might be missing out on a bargain?

Well, I've signed up for a mooc in microeconomics. I did it because I'm thinking about whether to do a masters, and what to study. I'm testing my resolve: if I enjoy it enough to study in my own time, maybe I'm ready for masters. Better to find out before I hand over the money.

Why else would a university student consider a mooc? You could use it to boost CV – it shows you're motivated, you have a variety of interests and you're not struggling with your workload. Although before you sign up for 10 (I mean, they're free, right?) have a read of Leonie Veerman's blog on why you shouldn't live for your CV.

And before you can use an online course to help you get a job, employers have to learn what they are and respect them. University isn't just about what you learn but proving you know it. The only proof you did your mooc is that you clicked on "I promise not to cheat" on the honour code. This is changing though: one of the biggest mooc organisers, Coursera, is trialling facial recognition software to monitor students, and charging a small fee for verification.

Moocs are extra tuition from a different perspective. Dreading that compulsory class you know you'll suck at, the one with the 50% fail rate? Mooc to the rescue. Free preparation: better than failing and suffering the consequences to your grade point average and student loan.

Do moocs pose a threat to old school universities? Should we fear that, before we've even paid them off, traditional university degrees will go the way of floppy disks?

Probably not. As Patrick McGee writes, they are a long way from ready to replace traditional degrees. A mooc v trad uni mega-battle to the death is unlikely – instead online courses offer another option on higher education's menu of delights.

Moocs still have teething problems. A Coursera course – oh so ironically about planning online courses – crashed recently, unable to cope with the thousands of students trying to join online discussions. Moocs are limited to subjects that can be assessed with multiple choice exams, marked automatically. Written any essays in your degree? Your professor's critique of them can't be replicated by a mooc – yet.

As for me, despite not making a single friend in a cohort of 37,000, I revelled in the chance to learn what I was interested in, on my own terms. Moocs are a new take on education – and we traditional university students needn't miss out.

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Technology brings classroom experience to distance learners

distance learning

 Course materials can be downloaded on to mobile devices and accessed by students wherever they are. Photograph: Mike Harrington/Lifesize

Students on the University of Leicester's new distance learning MSc in security, conflict and international development face more challenges than the average distance learner. For example, some students might spend weeks with no access to an internet connection, working in a refugee camp in post-conflict countries. How does the university make sure these remote students have everything they needed to carry out their studies?

"When you're doing that sort of thing, you can't be carrying huge folders of printed material," says Prof Adrian Beck, head of the university's department of criminology. "It struck us that we needed to find a way for them to transport our materials that is highly flexible but low-weight, and gives them access to all the material they will need while on the go."

The solution was to give every student on the course a free iPad, on to which they could download a bespoke app and all the course materials. Despite concerns from the university about security and technical support, the plan has gone smoothly. A few months into the MSc, no iPads have been lost or stolen and students have responded with enthusiasm.

Distance-learning providers already use virtual learning environments (VLEs) to enable students to read documents online, contact tutors, submit coursework, or engage in discussions with other students. But the increasing popularity of smartphones, iPads and Kindles means that universities are now responding to student demand to access those resources from their mobile devices.

The Open University (OU), for example, is developing a new generation of interactive course materials for tablet computers and has just launched OU Anywhere, a tablet and smartphone app that enables students to download all the course materials they need on to their mobile devices. The app also allows users to access the university's VLE to interact with fellow students and tutors. For distance learners, who often struggle to combine studying with full-time work, this provides a new flexibility. Prof Mike Sharples, chair in educational technology at the OU, says mobile devices are ideal for students who want to study during lunchbreaks or quiet moments at work, or on the train home.

As the cost of technology falls, mobile devices become more powerful and cross-platform development becomes simpler, it seems inevitable that universities will start to take mobile devices into account when they design learning resources.

Stuart Sutherland, senior development and delivery manager at the University of Derby Online, which has recently introduced an app to allow mobile access to its VLE, thinks that the advent of free Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) is forcing traditional universities to raise their game, and to design content specifically for a mobile environment, such as short videos or podcasts. "The small video explaining a difficult mathematic or scientific phenomenon is always a better way of explaining that than text," says Sutherland. Terese Bird, a learning technologist at the University of Leicester who is evaluating the impact of tablets in distance learning, argues that mobiles can be ideal for bite-sized learning: "One benefit identified by scholars is that if you learn something in short frequent bursts, you may very well be able to learn better than doing a five-hour study spree at the weekend."

Opportunities for social learning open up when students use mobile devices: the OU, for example, plans to allow students to share their e-reader annotations online, and to see which other students are reading the same text and chat online to them about it. The Leicester MSc students have an app that allows them to see where other students on their course are located and make contact with them. They can also make video calls to their tutors in given time slots or they can ask written questions, with the answers then made available to other students. Twitter functionality will be built into the next iteration of the app. As one student, RAF squadron leader Julian Turner, says: "I will often be using a note-taking app, ebook reader app and mind mapping app concurrently when studying."

Mobile devices offer not just convenience and flexibility, but potentially a new way of studying. Equipped with cameras, video and sound recorders, and GPS, they enable students to become creators as well as users of information – by recording a short video for a course assessment, for example. John Traxler, professor of mobile learning at the University of Wolverhampton, says mobile technologies can be used to help undergraduates "think like scientists, to have hypotheses and test them by gathering data in the wild rather than re-enacting what Michael Faraday did 200 years ago".

It may be early days, but the potential for using mobile technologies to transform the experience of distance learning is huge. As Beck says: "Distance learning has gone from being something pretty static and lonely to something that is much more dynamic and interactive, and you can find ways to engage students in a community of learners that was quite difficult to do in the past."

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Key Skills for EdTech Leaders

3 key EdTech skills for teachers

When one actually considers what an EdTech professional has to deal with during any given month, it’s pretty clear that the skill set that these professionals need is as broad as any other position in IT. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that an EdTech professional needs the breadth of knowledge that any CIO has, but with the operational skill set of a strong system or network administrator. This expectation that any EdTech professional will possess all of these skills is clearly over the top, and somewhat unrealistic.

Rather than get into the details of the specific details of the IT or management skills that an EdTech professional may need to be successful, I think it’s more useful to take a larger view. The reason for this is that sheer scope of the skill set demands that we start at a higher level so that we can build a focus.

I believe that the CIO analogy is apt, in that an EdTech professional needs to have an understanding of; Security, Data Protection, Networking, Servers and Administration, Disaster Recovery, Mobile computing, Windows, Virtualization, Social Media, and I’m sure a few others I’ve neglected. That’s not a job, it’s an IT organization. And most districts don’t have all those resources. In my opinion, the key starting point is to create a list of what skills are needed on a daily or at least weekly basis, and which others are used far less frequently. Focusing on the tasks that need regular attention should drive the skill set. However, EdTech professionals should have a familiarity with the other technology aspects so that they can partner with the right providers.

It’s also very important to realize that not all of the “regular” tasks are worth focusing on. For example, outsourcing first level technical support, or “Break/fix”, or some tasks that have less true value to the district often makes sense. Looking at the regular tasks that bring the most value to students and faculty should be a starting point.

This classic approach of what do I need to “own” and what can I “buy” helps the EdTech professional start to consider what skills they must personally have, and what skills they will be getting from a third party or other part of the team. As more IT vendors add a greater range of services and more solutions are available via Cloud delivery, there are more options you can leverage. In particularly for understaffed districts, these solutions should be the first option. In particular, IT hardware vendors have dramatically changed the ownership experience with new service offerings that are often a great fit in EdTech. Starting a new deployment with these services already in place can simplify the initial installation and the on-going use.

One of the latest trends, brought on by some of the Cloud service providers is to bundle a number of services for a complete offering in one aspect of infrastructure or an application. This is clearly a major benefit to a thinly stretched EdTech professional. Looking at the breadth and completeness of a service offering as part of the buying process clearly makes more sense than ever.

Simply put, the job of the EdTech professional is so broad that prioritization and focus is essential to success. Starting at a high level to sort the most important skills and tasks from those that can be completed using external resources or services is critical. Leverage may be one of the most important skills that an EdTech professional can possess.

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SF has plans to develop neglected Pier 70

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A long-neglected stretch of the San Francisco waterfront is on the verge of a major transformation. The San Francisco Port commission got a look at the plan Thursday afternoon.

At the heart of the project is a makeover of Pier 70 at the foot of Potrero Hill where 18,000 people worked during World War II. ABC7 News looks into the plan to move forward, without forgetting the past.

The Gold Rush was still in full swing when Pier 70 became a major ship building and repair port for the West Coast. It played a major role in the building of the country's fleet during the Spanish-American and both World Wars. Steel made there helped build the west, supplying everything from mining operations to the Transcontinental Railroad.

"Steel from Bethlehem helped support the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, the last major infrastructure project was the construction of the BART Transbay Tube in the Union Iron Works machine shop," said David Beaupre from the Port of San Francisco.

Big ships still come to Pier 70 for repairs, but other industries that once flourished there have moved on, leaving a lifeless 69-acre stretch of waterfront. The port is hoping to change that with a $242 million revitalization plan to bring thousands of people back to Pier 70.

"It will be a dramatic change. It will ideally be a new destination for San Franciscans and also for people of the region to come and enjoy and understand the history of the site," said Beaupre.

The plans call for new shops, restaurants, and small manufacturing facilities. Where ships once launched, there will be a new bay front park.

Developer Forest City will develop a third of the pier. It hopes to build 1,000 apartments and more than two million square feet of office space. So far there has been little opposition from neighbors. The developer says it wants the project to fit into the surrounding neighborhood.

"We really see a great opportunity at Pier 70 based on the history of the site and the remaining historic buildings to create a locally inspired waterfront," said Jack Sylvan from Forest City Development.

It may take as long as three years for Forest City to hammer out the details with the port. In the meantime, the city has already signed off on a $100 million project to fix up half a dozen buildings.

"Our job is to come in and basically make them safe and then lease them out and bring them back to life," said James Madsen from Orton Development.

Orton Development will also work on the project. It imagines an old power plant could become a restaurant. Offices of that once housed steel executives could be where new industries are created.

Each of these old building presents its own challenges. The Union Iron Works machine shop was built in 1885 and is the size of two football fields.

"We've been advised by the port that it's at risk for imminent collapse, so the first thing we'll do is we'll come in and shore this building up so that if there is an earthquake, it won't be lost," said Madsen.

Orton hopes to begin work later this year. The port wants to break ground on the new park in 2014 and Forest City is aiming to start work in 2016. The city says together, these projects will help remake Pier 70.

"The idea is to really bring Pier 70 back to its historic levels of activity by both creating a new job center, as well as getting residents here so you have a vitality down here 24-hours a day," said Kelley Kahn from the San Francisco Mayor's Office.

The project is expected to take 10 to 20 years to complete. The developer will hold an open house on Saturday.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

(Copyright ©2013 KGO-TV/DT.

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