Do you ture? Telling the difference between agents and avatars.

When I spent a lot of time in virtual worlds, it would sometimes surprise me that I’d be standing with a group of other avatars (ie figures that were being operated by people) and there’d be an agent or bot there (ie a figure that was operated by a software program) and the avatars would carry on chatting to the bot, completely oblivious to the fact that it wasn’t a person. Recently I needed to contact eBay about shipping costs from the US and all the time while chatting to their helpdesk was wondering whether I was chatting to a human or a machine. I couldn’t really tell, which is both an indication of how good the programming is, or how badly the guy I was talking to was doing at sounding human. I was talking to my brother about this a week or so ago and he said it never occurred to him to think about it. And if it did, would it matter? I guess it doesn’t. I got the answer I wanted, but it still felt a bit unnerving to not actually know.

One of the things I ended up looking for when looking at user experiences in virtual worlds was this tendency and ability to apply the Turing test (which gets explained below) – I called the process turing, so from a back construction (pretending it’s a verb to start with) you get people who tend to ture, and people who don’t. And people who are bad at it.

I started to write a paper about this, but never got far with it, one thing that I’d like to do and haven’t had the opportunity to is actually run some experiments on this. So instead of struggling on with the paper, I’ve posted it here.

I like big bots and I cannot lie

The need to be able to tell the difference between agents and avatars may not be important for people. For example, Nowak and Biocca found that, when participants were asked about their perceptions of copresence with avatars or agents, the degrees of copresence were equally as high for both.

“Given that the means in all conditions were well above the middle of the scale (representing relatively high levels of presence), it seems that users felt they had access to another mind and that the mind was attending to them and that they felt present in the virtual environment regardless of whether they interacted with an agent or avatar. (2003; 490).”

This presumes that for people’s interactions with agents to be highly effective they must be similar to that with avatars. Evidence supporting this assumption can be seen in experiments such as Kaptein et al (2011; 270) where it was found that social praise initiated by an agent contributed to the user liking the agent, but did not increase feelings of copresence since this praise was occasionally mistimed.

Draude specifically identifies trust as promoting a bond between agents and users (2011; 322), which when one considers the central role that trust plays in teamworking and collaboration may be a better indicator of effectiveness of human-agent relationships (Ring and Van de Ven, 1994; 93). In fact, trust in, or at least self-confidence in the presence of, agents may be stronger than that in avatars. In a study reported by Blascovitch and Bailenson, users were asked to perform easy and hard tasks in front of no audience, in front of an audience of agents, and in front of an audience of avatars. The participants performed equally well at the easy tasks in all three circumstances, but on hard tasks they performed significantly worse when performing in front of avatars. The conclusion was that the agents were not seen to be judging the performance, whereas the avatars were, and this inhibited the participants’ performance (Blascovitch and Bailenson, 2011; 92).

These factors influencing the relationship between humans and agents is not simply a function of the behaviour of the avatar, however, as individual differences between participants also have a bearing on this interaction. Bayne (2008: 204) notes the differing degrees to which uncanniness affects students, and no matter where the design of the agent falls on the Uncanny Valley curve, some participants will always report feelings of unease at the thought of communicating with an artificial intelligence (Gemma Tombs, personal correspondence). For others, the relationship they have with the agent may not differ substantially from that they have with humans; Morgan and Morgan, (2007; 334) report the statements of Reeves and Nass that “suggest that participants respond to computers socially, or in ways that are similar to their responses to other humans” and Kiesler that people “keep promises to computer in the same way that they do to real life human beings”, and as stated above, some will actually feel more confident in the presence of agents than in front of humans.

In a final addition to the complexity in human-agent compared to human-avatar relationships, participants also differ in their tendency, or even their ability, to determine whether a character’s agency is human, or artificial in its origin; characteristics which has been referred to as a turing tendency and a turing ability (Childs, 2010; 72). The Turing test was first proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 (Donath, 2000; 300) as a means to determine whether an artificial intelligence was thinking as a human. The essential element of the test was that a person would communicate through text with either a person or a computer, and if it was not possible to distinguish between the two, then the computer could be displaying intelligence. In some studies, agents taking part in online conversations have successfully mimicked human behaviour sufficiently to pass as human for a short while (Murray, 1997; 219-226, Donath, 2000; 302). Some participants, however, may make an inaccurate categorisation in the other direction. In a study reported by Slater and Steed (2002, 153) a participant:

“Formed the belief that the cartoon-like avatars were not embodying real people but were “robots”, and as a result she cut down her communication with them. It was only when they laughed (“something a robot cannot do”) that she believed they were real.”

In the studies by Newman (2007; 98) in which participants were asked to converse with a teddy bear named Albert (actually Newman’s research assistant) through a variety of media, several of the participants assumed that they were interacting with a non-player character in a game and “registered surprise when they realised that Albert was responding to them with human intelligence” (Newman, 2007; 98).

 From reading the transcripts of these interactions it seems that participants were employing a form of Turing test, to varying degrees of accuracy, i.e. have a high turing tendency, but low turing ability.

That’s as far as I got, but I’d be interested to hear your responses — do you ture? And how good are you at it?

References

Bayne, S. (2008) Uncanny spaces for higher education: teaching and learning in virtual worlds, ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology, Vol. 16, No. 3, September 2008, 197–205

Blascovitch, J. and Bailenson, J. (2011) Infinite Reality, HarperCollins: New York

Childs, M. (2010) Learners’ Experiences of Presence in Virtual Worlds, PhD Thesis, University of Warwick, http://go.warwick.ac.uk/ep-edrfap/

Donath, J. (2000) Being Real; Questions of Tele-Identity, in Goldberg, K. (ed.) The Robot in the Garden; Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet (296 – 311) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Draude, C. (2011) Intermediaries: reflections on virtual humans, gender, and the Uncanny Valley, AI & Soc (2011) 26:319–327

Kaptein, M., Markopoulos, P., de Ruyter, B, and Aarts, E. (2011) Two acts of social intelligence: the effects of mimicry and social praise on the evaluation of an artificial agent, AI & Soc (2011) 26:261–273

Morgan, K. and Morgan, M. (2007) The Challenges of Gender, Age and Personality in E-Learning, in R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite, (Eds.) The SAGE Handbook of E-learning Research, UK: London, Sage, 328-346

Murray, J.H. (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, New York: The Free Press

Newman, K. (2007) PhD Thesis, An Investigation of Narrative and Role-playing Activities in Online Communication Environments, Griffith University, Queensland

Nowak, K.L. and Biocca, F. (2003) The Effect of the Agency and Anthropomorphism on Users’ Sense of Telepresence, Copresence, and Social Presence in Virtual Environments, Presence, Vol. 12, No. 5, October 2003, 481–494

Ring, P.S and Van de Ven, A.H. (1994) ‘Developmental processes of cooperative interorganizational relationships’, Academy of Management Review, 19 (1): 90-118

Slater, M. and Steed, A. (2002) Meeting People Virtually: Experiments in Shared Virtual Environments, in Schroeder, R. The Social Life of Avatars, Springer-Verlag London

Meditations on “A Meditation on Meditation and Embodied Presence”

Carrie Heeter has just shared with me a paper she’s written on meditation and embodied presence (Presence, Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 25-2, 2016) <edit available at http://carrie.seriousgames.msu.edu/docs/A_Meditation_on_Embodied_Presence_and_Meditation.pdf>. Anyone who’s read my stuff will know that a large proportion of it is looking at how presence can support our online learning, and how the ideas of offline embodied cognition apply to our online experience. There are a few names that always crop up in my list of references and Prof. Heeter’s is one of them. One of the most influential of the papers I’ve read was one in which she looked at people’s identification with their on-screen image, (Heeter, C. (1995) Communication research on consumer VR. in F. Biocca and M.R. Levy (eds.), Communication in the age of virtual reality (pp. 191-218).)  About 25% identified with the screen, about half were mixed, and about 25% were so connected to their physical self that they couldn’t make the transition. In my PhD I found this 25% cropped up again and again  – I called them the Heeter Quarter – and there’s some neurological evidence that backs this up too (http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/7/1577.full).

Presence is a tricky concept to get your head around. I started my PhD in 2005 and all I managed to do by 2006 was come up with definitions of it. My supervisor (my second, the first had had enough,  I think) asked me what it means in general – outside of online learning. It was really difficult coming up with some hard definitions of it, we all know it when we see it, classroom presence, screen presence, stage presence, but nowhere actually broke it down. Poise, elan, attention.

And explaining it to others, I’d say “well you know you can sit in a boring lecture, you’re physically there, but you’re not really present, the same can happen onscreen, in fact some people never feel that sense of connection”.

I was going to write about this recently after reading Amy Cuddy’s book on Presence https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Presence-Bringing-Your-Boldest-Self-Biggest-Challenges/1409156001/ (well the bits I could read on the free preview). I got the general gist, which is that these ideas of presence can actually influence how you’re perceived, and so how you can be more successful if you develop them. She’s the person who did the research into power posing, i.e. standing in a Superman (or Wonder Woman) pose can make you feel more confident. I heard about this on a podcast, so initially thought of the hand raised flying pose, but it’s actually this one http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/geosheas-lost-episodes/images/f/ff/Fleischer-superman.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20151006182504 The book is basically lots of techniques on how to improve your presence. Body posture, voice, that sort of stuff. When I’m doing my staff development workshops on using Connect or SL, a lot is how to develop the online versions of body posture, and so on, in a nutshell the videoconferencing version of a firm handshake.

Back to Prof Heeter’s paper. It looks at meditation techniques, here are two guided meditations linked to from the paper. https://mindtoonlab.com/ninja/presence/presenceDemo1.mp3 and https://mindtoonlab.com/ninja/presence/presenceDemo2.mp3 I’ve tried them, she has a great voice for this sort of thing, though I was hindered by one of my cats choosing that moment to climb on me. I’m now having to write this with her asleep on top of me as a consequence.

The central thesis of the paper is that – going much further than I did when describing how sometimes we’re not really there, like if we’re in a boring lecture – that actually we’re not really present properly for the majority of the time. Interoception – paying attention to our bodies and our minds – can actually improve this sense of presence. Even the poor attempt I made at it while listening to those two audio links makes a difference, I think I do feel a bit more aware of the weight of Pasht on my chest now for example.

Promoting the experience of presence for the Heeter Quarter of my students I found very difficult. There was some correlation with how connected they were to their physicality (the three that struggled the most were a footballer, a cyclist and a sculptor – though that’s too small a sample size to really determine anything obviously). Other things like motivation helped, ideological opposition made it harder (see some of the work I did with Anna when she was Peachey not Childs for example e.g. (Childs, M. and Peachey, A. (2011) Love it or Hate it: Students’ Responses to the Experience of Virtual Worlds, in P. Jerry and L. Lindsey Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds: Opening an Undiscovered Country, 81-91. Witney, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press,).

The most recent paper by Prof Heeter looks at meditation activities done in VR as a means to encourage greater sense of virtual presence, and they seem to have worked. This reminds me of the meditation tree in Chilbo that Chris Collins (Fleep Tuque) created in SL. You could sit your avatar in an animation ball and it would go through some yoga poses and it was actually very calming. It would be really interesting to try some of the techniques mentioned in the paper in VR to see if it does help with a greater experience of presence. First steps though – I’m going to try the techniques IRL and see if they help with a greater experience of presence there.

Where does freedom of expression end?

There have been a few blog entries I’ve read recently about the Stop Funding Hate campaign decrying the campaign’s success with Lego withdrawing its promotions from the Daily Mail. Here’s one http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/11/stop-funding-hate-nasty-elitist-campaign-press-censorship/

Here’s another http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2016/news/deputy-editor-attacks-stop-funding-hate-supporters-hypocrisy/

And a third http://www.bruceonpolitics.com/2016/11/13/stop-funding-hate-fascists/

There are two problems with the arguments against what the SFH campaign is doing.

The first is; they’re not limiting free speech. They’re merely using the tools that created a platform for the Daily Mail and Express against them.

There are no left wing mass media outlets. By the nature of mass media, it requires massive funding to achieve. People with lots of money tend to be right wing, because of course they’d be OK with the system as it is, it’s the one in which they’ve become successful, and it’s not in their interest therefore to change it. Some may have made their money by luck, or intelligence, or a combination of both, but the largest corporations make their money because the capitalist system works for them.

Newspapers have a ludicrous business model. They only survive because of advertising. When I was at journalism school (89 – 92) I wasn’t very motivated by the newspaper side of things because I assumed with the Internet they wouldn’t be around much longer. I’d not accounted for the inertia that culture and big business together can provide. They’re not driven by audiences therefore, they’re driven by advertisers, hence big business, hence right wing.

For the average person to influence their direction therefore, it can’t be done by not buying them. People are already not buying them. They can only influence them by not buying stuff from their advertisers.

But nobody’s stopping them from saying what they want. There’s the normal social media avenue that everyone else who’s not supported by massive corporate investment has. Anyone who works for a newspaper is still free to use that. There’s no suppression involved, just an effort to limit the unfair advantage. So likening the process to book burning is ridiculous.

The second flaw in the argument is that none of the stuff I’ve read from those who are supporting the campaign argues that newspapers shouldn’t express a different political position if they want. Any well-argued, accurate and evidenced account from a different perspective is fine.

It’s poorly-argued, inaccurate and evidenceless positions that are what they’re objecting to. The failure of mass media to actually stick to the truth is a given, the Mail never has after all. From an educational perspective though, and looking at things like “graduateness”, educating a population to insist on the truth should be one of our aims. If not our chief aim. And from that perspective seeing people demanding it, and a big business acceding to the need for it before they will invest in something, is reassuring that in some areas at least, things are moving in the right direction.

To say something is “true” is of course could be falling to the trap of assuming there is such a thing as independent objective reality. Of course there isn’t. The word “is” should only ever be used as a short-hand for “according to the best interpretation of the available evidence”. Since doing my astrophysics degree we’ve gone from “the rate of the universe expansion is slowing” to “the rate of the universe expansion is increasing”. The first of those things was true in the 80s, the second of those is currently true. Any fact is only tentatively held.

That doesn’t mean though that the truth is completely up for grabs and that any statement is valid because no-one really knows. I’ve been increasingly surprised by the discussions in the Horizon 2020 groups on LinkedIn where there are a lot of statements denouncing scientific arrogance, that science is perceived as the only route to knowledge. If you think that testing, evidence, argument, and selecting the best explanation from those presented by that process isn’t the only way to come up with a viewpoint, then stay the fuck away from research. And stay the fuck away from education too. Because you are a waste of oxygen. And far too dangerous to be around learners.

We’ve seen one huge problem with this lack of insistence on evidence with the Trump candidacy. Politifact http://www.politifact.com/ ought to be one of the most influential sites in politics, because if someone’s making stuff up, it should really count against them. But then there’s this http://www.politifact.com/personalities/donald-trump/statements/byruling/pants-fire/ Which everyone voting knew really, but not enough people thought mattered.

So – the conclusion is, in academia, in teaching, we have to loudly and immediately call bullshit whenever it arises, not fall prey to considerations of all viewpoints being valid. It’s the best defence against intellectual dishonesty and fraudulent behaviour. And also that wishy-washy poverty of thinking exemplified by Tim Minchin in Storm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhGuXCuDb1U or Sokal and Bricmont in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense. But defend freedom of speech whenever possible too. Those two things are not incompatible at all.

Sandpits and scorpions

maiya

Other comparison websites are available

I’m using the image of Maiya as she’s a schoolteacher meerkat (and ex-secret agent but that’s another story). The point is that meerkats have been found to teach their offspring. They create a sandpit and incrementally teach little meerkats to kill scorpions. They first put a dead scorpion in the pit, and once the young meerkat pup can deal with that, they’ll put a live scorpion in there with its sting removed, and if they can kill the scorpion they’ll then put one in with its sting intact. Once they can kill that the pup has graduated from scorpion academy.

 

http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/wild-meerkats-school-their-young

Basically all the elements of learning design are in there: there’s cognitive apprenticeship, experiential learning, zone of proximal development, learning pathway, teacher intervention, assessment, and peer support (other meerkits are watching). The students have their tools (OK claws) to attack the scorpion with. And if occasionally a scorpion kills a meerkit, well that just means your retention rates take a hit.

There’s no way to tell if any of our ancestors applied similar techniques, but assuming they did, it means we probably perfected learning design 10s of millions of years ago.

If anything all we’ve added are the ability to do teaching at a larger scale (lecture halls and MOOCs) so more economically, and add a metacognitive element (learners identify their own learning needs, they learn how to apply their skills to new challenges, like killing invasive species) so more flexibility. But that’s about it.

So what do we need educational research for?

Well for one, it’s good to know why it works, even if that’s just a matter of coming up with a name for things. But in a period of rapid technological change, there’s the fact that the sandpit changes, and the scorpions. All the time. But the claws get an update too. Technological changes and social change also mean that the only way to ensure your pups are always going to be able to adapt to those changes is by teaching them how to continue learning.

The scorpion/sandpit thing came to mind this week because I was at the Telford Schools Conference http://www.telfordeducationshowcase.co.uk/. I was talking about Educational Social Media, and I’ve been presenting stuff on this for schools since Coventry in 2009 where I held a workshop titled “Wikis and twitters and blogs? Oh my!” Is web 2.0 a road schools should be going down?

The answer then was a bit equivocal. This time though there was no difficulty selling the concept to the teachers. In fact a good proportion of them had already used some form of social media in their teaching. The barrier now is the institutions. There is a reticence to allow children to access their mobile phones in school, in case it leads to them using them all the time, and outside the class there’s still not a guarantee children will have access to the technology. Some schools are on systems that block access to twitter.

The fear is that social media are such a can of worms that introducing them is just asking for trouble. And since a lot of social media only allow registration if you’re above a certain age, often the children don’t want to admit to being on it.

The thing is, there really are some problems with social media usage. There’s exposure, by making social activities public, there’s stalking and cyberbullying and loads of other ways of being stung. Like sex ed classes, it’s a good idea to raise the ideas early, before there’s a chance of the damage occurring. And doing that in a safe sandpit like social media in a closed school system seems like a good idea. If bullying and inappropriate posts do occur, then the negative way of looking at this is that the school has facilitated this by putting up the social media system in the first place, but the positive response is to look at it as a teaching opportunity, to provide children with an opportunity to see why it’s wrong.

Unfortunately, although schools are now on board with this as a concept, it looks like local authorities are still shying away from it. Many actually ban teachers from being on FB for example. For them social media are just too dangerous to play with. Which is a bit of a step back from where the meerkats are at. At least they acknowledge they have a responsibility to teach their pups about the stuff that can sting you.

 

Elements of a TEL strategy pt 3

So we’re now down to the final five.

11. Provide blended and online learning options

When I was doing the mapping between the Jisc NUS tool and the Brookes TEL framework, I linked two principles, from the tool: “Provide online and blended options where they offer genuine enhancements” and from the framework “Learning, teaching and assessment at Oxford Brookes enables all students to reach their potential and does not disadvantage any groups of students.”

This might seem like a bit of a fudge, but actually when you unpack the two principles, there’s a lot of coherence.

A strategy needs to enable students to overcome the access issue, access not in the sense of making all content of use to students when they’ve got to it (i.e. screenreadable for visually impaired students, captioned for deaf students, and so on) but access in the sense of enabling all students to get to it in the first place. With constraints of geography and time, not all students can engage with all aspects of face-to-face teaching, so providing an online version of all the teaching, so that students can mix and match as they need to, reduces this disadvantage. As with the other sort of accessibility, though, what supports the most disadvantaged students actually helps all students. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that because online content reduces this access barrier, it always offers genuine enhancements.

12. Digital identity and well-being

Identity leads of from the concept of citizenship and community, but is fundamental to the online experience. Knowing who we are when we’re online is informed by what we understand of digital citizenship, and most social theories go into some depth about how community roles and identity complement each other. Supporting students to develop an identity as a learner helps them with their learning, supporting them to develop an online identity helps them with their online learning, and stands them in good stead for life after university.

Digital wellbeing might be a new one for most people, but it makes sense that we also need to work out how to encourage students to take care of themselves online, and the Jisc NUS benchmarking tool also lists knowing when to switch off amongst its student experiences. I summarised digital wellbeing in one seminar as everything from cyberbullying to lumbar support. The latter particularly weighing on my mind at the moment as I’m typing this standing up through not paying enough attention to my posture while sitting for too long.

 13. Virtualisable transformative learning spaces

The Brookes strategy has a line in it which says “The University will continue to develop and exploit the potential of digital and physical learning spaces, and will encourage and support staff and students in partnership to find different ways of using these spaces effectively and creatively.” As I mentioned in a previous post, in parallel to this work, I was also working with a group of academics who were interested in benchmarking these spaces. People contributed ideas (specifically Kathrine Jensen, Liz Falconer and Andrew Middleton – let me know if I’ve missed anyone out) and then Richard Francis and I organised them into a whole.

What we ended up with was a matrix in which each row followed a constant theme, and not only that, each one actually fitted in with one of the other principles of the matrix. We could have added these to the separate principles, but the response we got from the other people we showed an early stage of the matrix to was that they would find it more useful if it was kept in the format of the Jisc NUS tool. In the hope that if we made it useful for them, they would be more likely to contribute content, we went along with this, and just added this as a 13th principle.

Linked Good Practice Principle  First steps  Developing  Developed  Outstanding
7 – Support students to use their own devices for learning (Bring Your Own or BYO) Classroom activities that include use of personal mobile devices for individual use. Classroom activities that include use of personal mobile devices for collaborative activities. Group work spaces, flexible furniture and shared plug-and-play screens in classrooms. Use of augmented reality approaches in co-creation and collaboration.
8 – Provide a robust, flexible digital infrastructure Classroom and meeting environments for cross-site meetings.
Develop and maintain experimental teaching spaces
Classroom environments for satellite classrooms, online DL, conferences, symposia etc.Experimental teaching spaces available to all staff. Fully integrated participation of co-located and distanced participation in class activities. Fully integrated participation of co-located, remote and virtual participation in class activities.
9 – Communicate with students about their digital experience Convene a learning spaces development team to ensure joined up approach. Extra-curricular spaces and networks established / encouraged.
10 – Use digital systems to build a sense of belonging Performance art, e.g. drama performances, fashion shows, craft exhibitions. Students’ interaction / dissemination to professional / educational networks Students developing and sharing their work in open online spaces, using appropriate open licenses, tagging and engaging with relevant communities outside the university (e.g professional, arts, etc.).
11 – Provide online and blended options where they offer genuine enhancements Field trips to physical and virtual spaces.Guest visits to classrooms through remote access. 3D virtual space replication of physical space activities.

Augmenting of physical environments with virtual attributes, eg.data visualisation etc.

Practice-based activities in virtual and remote environments such as law courts, forensic examinations, psychology counselling, laboratory work. Integration of virtual and physical spaces, via augmented reality technologies.

14. Assessment

Assessment is covered in the Jisc NUS tool but is separated across the other principles. In the DC matrix we just link to a search on the term. The Brookes strategy however, adds assessment as a separate principle.

I think assessment affects TEL in two ways. One is that it offers a lot more flexibility and robustness to assessing the usual stuff. You can use online submission – which is more admin than TEL, but it does enhance the student experience to be able to just send an assignment in by clicking a button, rather than print it out, stick it in a folder and travel somewhere to stick it in a box. Particularly if you’re doing this at 11.59 p.m.  And then GradeMark and TurnItIn and so on. You can do computer-aided assessment like multiple choice, which then means you can do formative assessment more easily, and gamify it if you’re into that sort of thing. Formative assessment is also excellent for making sure that students do the preparation if you’ve gone down the flipped classroom route. If you don’t pass the online quiz on the content, you don’t get to go to the class.

What’s maybe more interesting though is how TEL then affects what you assess. If you have online forums, to which students contribute, how do you assess the contribution? If they can submit multimedia content instead of essays (number 3 of this list), do you know how to assess them? I’ve produced a video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B036xtd0d_4 summarising these. I produced it for the Teaching Online Open Course that I’m a tutor on at Brookes. For Brookes. I was actually on the top floor of the Hyatt in Kathmandu when I did it, you might be able to hear the altitude in my narration. I know … Grant Morrison has a transcendental epiphany involving rippling, dribbling blobs of pure holographic meta-materials, angels or extraterrestrialswhile in Kathmandu, which led him to write The Invisibles, and I create a video on online assessment …

 0. Staff development

Also not included in the original Jisc NUS tool (because it’s not directly related to the student experience) but is in the Brookes TEL strategy is the principle of staff development. The Brookes strategy states “All staff who support learning participate annually in collective professional development to ensure that their practice is evidence-based, informed by the scholarship of learning and teaching, and employs up-to-date learning tools and technologies.”. As the starting point for putting the Digital Choices matrix together was to come up with a staff development programme for TEL, we obviously had to add something on this.

As mentioned in a previous post, the idea is that we have a zeroth principle, sitting alongside all the rest; teachers come for the ideas on improving the learning experience, but stay for ideas on how they can repurpose this for their own professional gain. We’re assuming that there may be different reasons for developing practice, they might need to boost their experience to get their HEA fellowship (or associate fellowship if they’re not directly connected to teaching), or they might want to use their teaching development as a basis for research, and to get published. Or they’ve been told to by their line manager. The professional development strand is there to support them through whatever they need.

 

So that’s what I’ve been able to glean so far from a comparison of the two frameworks. There’s some small differences, but overall most of them match. It’s interesting that independently, the same basic principles emerge, and I wonder if those themes are present in other strategies, or if there’s some that both have missed. There’s obviously some overlap between some of the principles, but overall they seem to be discrete identifiable aspects of the TEL experience at HE. So far, anyway.

Elements of a TEL strategy pt2

I should point out that I’m doing these in the order that they’re in the Jisc NUS Digital Experience Benchmarking tool, as that would be more helpful to anyone looking at that for more detail. You’ll notice I’ve split these posts into fives, and there are twelve principles in that tool, which means there are three extra in these posts. All will be revealed in the next post.

6. Access and inclusion

In this category I mean access in the sense of enabling equity for people with disabilities, access in the sense of people being able to log on comes later. This one is a no-brainer though, and shouldn’t really need any clarification. One thing though, if you think assistive technologies are just for people with disabilities, you probably ought to take a look at the work of TechDis, or EA Draffan. Technologies that I first encountered through working with students with disabilities, actually make life more useful for everyone, or at least offer people more choice and flexibility. For example, podcasts – really picked up first by dyslexic students, and those with visual impairment, but a great source of learning. Listening to audio books on your walkman was pretty much the first instance of mobile learning. Having everything readable by screen readers for example, and making presentations available in advance, doesn’t just help the students who need it read on their devices, it helps everyone.

7. Augmenting the physical environment with technology including BYOD

As I said in the last post, some elearning strategies I’ve seen have equated “technology” with “VLE”. I think we’re getting away from that and the idea of using technology in the classroom, for people to interact with each other in different ways, and with online content is making more of an impact due to devices like the smartphone and tablet. Of course an immediate reaction to these sort of proposals is “but they don’t all have them”. I’m not sure what is the most appropriate ethical response here – do you impair all students’ learning because you can’t provide the same experience for everyone – is that better or worse than introducing a disadvantage? Although of course there’s always disadvantages between students. Not all will have the text book. Some will have a disability. Some will have a better social life so be there with a hangover. We’re just introducing one additional inequity to the prevailing mix of scores of inequities, but it gets noticed because it’s new and shiny.

8. Providing an appropriate infrastructure

Technically, maybe, not TEL, references to this aren’t in the Brookes TEL strategy for example. Providing an IT infrastructure is the role of the IT department, not the pedagogues, but the reality is that if you divorce one from the other, things aren’t going to work so well. Ideally, decisions about what to support are made for pedagogical reasons, so the supported technologies are those that lecturers need, not what the IT department think are appropriate. This isn’t necessarily the way things work out though. Being able to just rely on WiFi and the VLE being up, and having a power socket within reach when you sit down don’t just happen, but people expect them to. The problem with IT infrastructure is that when it works you don’t notice it, when it doesn’t it does. But then, that’s fair enough really. It’s the same with oxygen. The Brookes IT strategy has a great line – “Systems that just work”.

The Jisc NUS tool calls this principle “Providing a robust, flexible digital infrastructure”. I’m not sure that’s the goal really. One of the important things to do as a teacher is to innovate, and that means adopting new technologies, and often when we do so, we don’t get the support we need from the IT department, because they’re focusing on keeping the basics running. Robust and flexible are, (with limited resources) mutually exclusive. I’d like yes, most of the effort in making the basics robust, but with a bit spare for looking at the flaky flexible stuff that maybe doesn’t always work.

9. Understanding digital citizenship/rights/responsibilities

This is a bit trickier a principle to really pin down than the last one. The Jisc NUS tool labels this as “Communicate with students about their digital experience”, Brookes expresses the goal that “Students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning, to engage actively with feedback and assessment, and to develop their own justifiable ways of thinking about and constructing their view of the world.” When you unpack these, there’s stuff around understanding plagiarism, intellectual property and netiquette, but also where to go to for support and including digital issues in the curriculum. This also includes students engaging with their own digital support, so being polled about how effective the other 14 principles are being conducted. For Brookes I added a line to the DC matrix that “Students develop their view of the world through global digital citizenship.”. This probably needs summing up better than I’ve done here, but strategies need something in this field, understanding what it means to be a participative responsible student (initially) when online, but ultimately a citizen. This links also with the idea of digital wellbeing (number 12) and segues nicely into …

10. Creating and supporting digital communities

If 9 is a theme on supporting students’ understanding of what their role is as netizens (perhaps abstaining from painful portmanteau neologisms could be one attribute we should instil in our graduates), 10 is about enabling them to participate fully in online communities. Both the Jisc NUS tool, and the Brookes TEL Framework have this as their tenth principle, and the wording is very similar. One summarises this as “Using digital systems to build a sense of belonging”, the other says that “We will provide the digital environments and technologies that enable students easily to create and support their own groups and networks comprising Brookes students and staff and relevant groups and individuals.” Retention of students is highly dependent on the students’ feeling of inclusion, and providing the right platforms for them to communicate with each other, and with the institution, can increase this. Communities extend outside of the institution too, and creating effective links through these can enable transition to the students’ lives after graduation.

Elements of a TEL strategy pt 1

In the previous set of posts on the process by which we developed the Digital Choices Matrix at Brookes I mentioned how part of that process was mapping the Brookes Technology-Enhanced Learning Framework to the Jisc NUS Digital Experience Benchmarking Tool. The plan is that Brookes staff come to the site via the principles of the Brookes framework, and are then redirected to the appropriate bit of the tool. The DC Matrix is the Jisc NUS tool with a couple of things added. Other institutions can then adopt the Benchmarking tool as the same back-end, but similarly their front-ends would be their own TEL strategy. Or whatever.

Mapping the two though, was surprisingly easy because, although developed separately, if you’re looking at the student digital experience (which is what both the tool, and the Brookes TEL framework are based on) you are going to come up with similar things.

This post, and the several following it, are really just commentaries on that mapping process; the bits that were the same and why they were the same, and the bits that are different.very superficial oversimplifications, but I needed to reduce these down to top-level descriptors to get an overview of how everything fitted together, and found it helpful. Maybe you will too. If not just move on, there’ll be some rant about what grinds my gears along probably in a while. It’ll help to see the details too and you can see the principles in the Jisc NUS tool here repository.jisc.ac.uk/6140/1/Jisc_NUS_student_experience_benchmarking_tool.pdf

  1. Preparing students for study

This is the first principle in both frameworks. These are generic skills that students need to have throughout their lives, but also particularly while they are studying. This is partly about accessing information, but also about being able to build up the networks that will be useful in engaging with communities, both of their peers and external organisations. Both strategies note that this process starts before induction because ideally you want the students to know who the other people are on their course before they start. Social media is very effective for this.

2. Providing the skills they need for their course

This is the second principle in both frameworks. This overlaps a lot with the first, but is mainly about making sure students have access to, and training in, the specific programs and equipment they need for their subject discipline. A note on IT strategies in general. I’ve been asked to look at a few, and about half make the same mistake, of equating TEL with online, or even worse, with VLE. Technology has a hugely wider range than that, and most of the interesting stuff is actually what happens in the classroom when you add technology.

3. Using technology to bring new experiences to courses

This isn’t about making helping students with technology that they already know or need to know. This strand is about making more multimedia content available, representing material in ways that makes it more accessible, or understandable, to students, or more interesting and engaging. Enabling students to create multimedia content during their course (irrespective of what their subject discipline is) also makes it more engaging than just more text again, although is a lot more work. When I was teaching physics, a simple flash animation of magnetic flux cutting an induction loop would have saved me hours of trying to explain something from just drawings. But it wasn’t around then. When I taught theatre studies using Second Life, being able to take students on field trips around the theatres they were studying, or staging Shakespeare on an actual (well virtual) Globe made the subject come alive in new ways.

4. Prepare students for the digital workplace

I’ve worked a lot recently with online collaboration as an educational process (I have a book coming out on it early next year) and students see the skills that are acquired through working in remote teams, for example, as being enormously useful. It’s a huge motivator. Unless they’ve actually come from industry in which case they see it as completely irrelevant. However, we’re teaching for how things will be, not how they are, and all the signs point to remote working and collaboration being a key aspect of many sectors. Ensuring activities students engage with will enable them to develop these sorts of skills is enormously helpful. Probably. Even if it turns out to not be the case, it still makes life a lot more interesting.

5. Provide access to digital content

When we’ve worked with Academic Liaison Librarians, this is the aspect they’ve focused on. Well, they’ve been engaged with all the aspects, but this is the bit that they feel they own. This is mainly ebooks and journals, and the citation indices that help you find them, but could be VRML models, useful apps and so on. Imagine a class where everyone downloads an app to their phone and walk around wearing google cardboard headsets – like looking around inside a body or something. How cool would that be?