Asking the big questions around online learning

ICDE World Conference on Online Learning
Toronto, Canada
16-19 October 2017

New City Hall, Toronto, Canada

New City Hall, Toronto, Canada. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

The ICDE World Conference on Online Learning, focusing on the theme of “Teaching in a Digital Age – Re-thinking Teaching and Learning”, took place over four days in October, 2017. Like at other recent large technology conferences, it was interesting to see increasing recognition of the broader sociopolitical and sociocultural questions in which online learning is embedded, as reflected in many of the presentations. Papers were presented for the most part in groups of three or four under overarching strands. Short presentation times somewhat restricted the content that speakers were able to cover, but each set of papers was followed by audience discussion where key points could be elaborated on.

In his plenary presentation, edu@2035: Big shifts are coming, Richard Katz referred to Marshall McLuhan’s comment that “we march backwards into the future“, meaning that it is very difficult for us to predict the future without using the past as a framework. He went on to speak of Thomas Friedman’s framework for the future involving six core strategies – analyze, optimize, prophesize, customize, digitize and automize – in which, Katz suggested, all companies as well as all educational institutions need to be engaged. He suggested we may need to consider wild scenarios: could admission to colleges in the future be based not on performance tests but on genotyping? The gap between technology advancement and socialisation of technologies is widening, he stated.

As we look to the future, we have some choices in post-secondary education: avoid the topic; paralysis by analysis; choose mindful incrementalism; or invent a new future. To do the last of these, we need to take at least part of our attention off the rear view mirror. We need to construct scenarios, develop models, identify risks, and extract themes, and to present these ideas in short video formats that will be engaged with by today’s audiences. In short, we need to iterate, communicate and engage.

He mentioned William Gibson’s comment that “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“, and a comment from Barry Chudakov (Sertain Research) that “algorithms are the new arbiters of human decision-making“. Evidence that the future is now can be found in various areas, from chatbots to the explosion of investment in cognitive systems and artificial intelligence (AI). Drawing on Pew Internet research, he suggested algorithms will continue to proliferate, with good things lying ahead. However, humanity and human judgement are lost when data and predictive modelling become paramount. Biases exist in algorithmically organised systems, and algorithmic categorisations deepen divides. Unemployment will rise. And the need is growing for algorithmic literacy, transparency and oversight.

He asked whether, by 2035, we can use new technologies and algorithms to personalise instruction in ways that both lower costs and foster engagement, persistence, retention and successful learning, possibly on a global scale? He concluded with a number of key points:

  • The robots are coming, aka change is inevitable;
  • Our mission must endure (even as our delivery and business models change);
  • While the past may be a prologue, there will be new winners and losers;
  • A future alma mater may be Apple, Google, Microsoft, Alibaba …;
    • scale is critical;
    • lifetime employability is critical;
    • students will determine winners and losers;
  • The future is already here, the question is whether we can face it;
    • ‘extreme planning’ must be practised;
  • Never discount post-secondary education.

In his plenary presentation, Reboot. Remake. Re-imagine, John Baker, the CEO of D2L, asked why it is that so many movie makers decide to re-imagine old movies? It’s because the original idea was great, but something has changed in the meantime, and a new direction is needed. Today’s political, science and environmental problems will ultimately be solved through education and its ripple effects, he suggested. In the current climate of rapid change, it is essential to focus not on remaking or rebooting, but rather on re-imagining the possible shape of education.

The technology must be about more than convenience; it must improve learning and increase engagement and satisfaction. Well-designed learning software can allow teachers to reach every student; what if there was no back of the classroom, he asked. It should be possible to reach remote learners or disabled learners or refugees or students using a range of devices from the brand new to hand-me-down technologies (hence the importance of responsive design).

We will soon see AI, machine learning, automation and adaptive learning becoming important; it is not just technology that is changing, but pedagogy. He cited an Oxford University study suggesting that 47% of all current jobs will cease to exist within two decades as a result of the advent of AI. The reality is that our skills development is not currently keeping pace with what will be needed in an AI-enabled future. Continuing educational opportunities for the workforce will be key here.

He suggested that the most important pedagogical innovation of the current era is competency-based education. In a discussion of its advantages, especially when accelerated by adaptive learning, he indicated that the greatest benefit is not so much the achievement of the competencies, but the leftover time and what can be done with it – could students learn more about other areas? Could they enrich their education through more research even at undergraduate level?

In response to an audience question, he also suggested that ‘learning management system’ (LMS) is an outdated term and ‘learning platform’ or ‘learning hub’ might be preferable. How do we capture and share the learning that is taking place across multiple platforms and spaces? It is vital that these systems should be porous, and interoperability between systems (e.g., through Learning Tools Interoperability [LTI] and Caliper) is essential.

In his plenary presentation, The future of learning management systems: Development, innovation and change, Phil Hill suggested that while there are many exciting educational technology developments, there is also a great deal of unhelpful hype about them. The steady, slower paced progress being made at institutions – for example in the introduction of online courses – is in many ways disconnected from the media and other hype. What is important is what can be done with asynchronous, individualised online education that cannot be done so easily in a plenary face-to-face classroom. Some of today’s most creative courses are bypassing LMSs in order to incorporate a wider range of platforms and tools.

Most institutions now have an LMS; these are seen as necessary but not exciting or dynamic. The core management system design is based on an old model. Some companies are trying to add innovative features, but it’s not clear how useful or effective some of these may be. (It may be that over time all ed tech platforms start adding in extra features which eventually make them look like badly-designed LMSs.) When LMSs first appeared, there were few competitors, but now there are many flexible platforms available, creating a demand that LMSs can replicate the same features. There is considerable frustration with LMSs, which are seen as much harder to use than the platforms and tools on the wider web.

He mentioned that in higher education Moodle is currently the LMS with the largest user base, while Canvas is the fastest growing LMS. At school level, Google Classroom, Schoology and Edmodo have some leverage, but they are less used in higher education. Many other platforms have attempted to enter the mainstream but have since disappeared. Overall, this is a fairly static market without many new successful entrants. The trend is towards having these systems hosted in the cloud; this may be the only choice with some LMSs, such as Canvas. While there is currently a lot of movement towards open education, in North America the installed base of LMSs is moving away from the main open source providers, Moodle and Sakai; similar trends are seen elsewhere. There is a certain perception that these look less professional than the proprietary systems. Open source is arguably not as important as it used to be; many educational institutions have moved away from their original concern not to be beholden to commercial providers, and are now focusing more on whether staff and students are happy with the system. Worldwide we’re seeing most institutions working with the same small number of LMSs: Canvas, D2L, Blackboard, Moodle and to some extent Sakai. We should consider the implications of this.

The question is how to resolve the tension between faculty desires to use the proliferating educational technologies which offer lots of flexible teaching and learning options, and institutional insistence that faculty make use of the LMS. Many people are saying that LMSs should go away, but in fact that’s not what we’re seeing happening. Opposition to LMSs is largely based on the fact that they function as walled gardens, which is how they were originally designed. In many cases, they have added poor versions of external software like blogs or social networks, and there has been an overall bloating of the systems.

What we’re seeing now is a breaking down of the walled garden model. The purpose of an LMS is coming to be seen as providing the basics, with gateways offered so that there are pathways to the use of external tools. It should be easy to access and integrate these external tools when faculty wish to use them. Interoperability of tools through systems like LTI, xAPI and Caliper is an important direction of development, though there is a need for these standards to evolve. They key point however is the acceptance by the industry that this is the direction of evolution. He concluded that there are three major trends in LMSs nowadays: cloud hosting; less cluttered, more intuitive designs; and an ability to integrate third-party software. Much of this change has been inspired by the Educause work on NGDLEs. There is a gradual move among LMS providers towards responsive designs so that LMSs can be used more effectively on mobile devices.

The strand Engaging online learners focused on improving learning outcomes through improving learner engagement. In their presentation, Engaging online students by fostering a community of practice, Robert Kershaw and Patricia Lychak explained their belief that if facilitators are engaged with developing their own competencies, then they will use these to engage students. Initially, a small number of workshops and informal support were provided for online facilitators in their institution; then a training specialist was brought in; and it was found through applied research that online facilitators wanted more development in student engagement, supporting student success, and technology use. A community of practice model with several stages has been developed: onboarding (involving web materials, a handbook, and a discussion forum) > community building (involving a discussion forum, webinars, and in-person events) > coaching (involving checking in with new facilitators, one-on-one support, and inquiries) > student success initiatives (involving early check-ins with students,  mid-term progress reports on students, and final grade entry) > training (shaped in part by feedback from the earlier stages; this also shapes the next onboarding phase). Lessons learned include:

  • introduce variety (delivery method, timing, detail level);
  • encourage sharing (best practices, student success stories, sample report comments);
  • promote efficiency (pre-populate templates, convert documents to PDF fillable forms, highlight LMS time-saving tools).

What the trainers try to do is to model for online facilitators what they can do for and with their students.

In his presentation, Chasing the dream: The engaged learner, Dan Piedra indicated that the tools we invest in can lock us into design mode templates. He quoted Sean Michael Morris: “today most students of online courses are more users than learners … the majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines“. Drawing on Coates (2007), he suggested that engagement involves:

  • active learning;
  • collaborative learning;
  • participation in challenging academic activities;
  • formative communication with academic staff, and involvement in enriching educational experiences;
  • feeling legitimated/supported by learning communities;
  • work-integrated learning.

He showed a model being used at McMaster University involving the company Riipen, which places a student with a partner company that assesses students’ skills, after which the professor assigns a grade.

In her talk, A constructivist pedagogy: Shifting from active to engaged learning, Cheryl Oyer referred to Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s Community of Inquiry model involving cognitive, teaching and social presence. She mentioned a series of learner engagement strategies for nursing students: simulations, gamification, excursions, badges and portfolios.

The strand Online language learning focused on the many possibilities for promoting language learning through digital technologies. In his presentation, The language laboratory with a global reach, Michael Dabrowski talked about a Spanish OER Initiative at Athabasca University. The textbook was digitised, with the Moodle LMS being used as the publishing platform. Open technologies were used, including Google Maps (as a venue for students to conduct self-directed sociocultural investigations), Google Translate (as a dictionary, and a pronunciation and listening tool, which now also incorporates Word Lens for mobile translation), and Google Voice (the foundation for an objective open pronunciation tutor). With Google Translate, there are some risks including laziness with translation and uncritical acceptance of translations, but in fact it was found that students were noticing errors in Google’s translations.  With Google Voice, it is not a perfect pronunciation tutor; sometimes it is too critical, and sometimes too forgiving. Voice recognition by a computer is nevertheless a preferable form of feedback compared to learners’ own self-comparisons with language speakers heard in an audio laboratory; effectively it is possible to have a free open mobile language learning laboratory nowadays.

In her presentation, Open languages – Open online learning communities for better opportunities, Joerdis Weilandt described an open German learning course she has run on the free Finnish Eliademy platform. In setting up this course, it was important to transition from closed to open resources so they could be modified as needed. Interactive elements were added to the materials presented to students using the H5P software.

In their paper, Language learning MOOCs: Classifying approaches to learningMairéad Nic Giolla Mhichíl and Elaine Berne explained that there has been a significant increase in the availability of LMOOCs (language learning MOOCs). They were able to identify 105 LMOOCs in 2017, and used Grainne Conole’s 12-dimension MOOC classification to present an analysis of these (to be published in a forthcoming EuroCALL publication). They went on to speak about a MOOC they have created on the FutureLearn platform to promote the learning of Irish.

In his presentation, Online learning: The case of migrants learning French in Quebec, Simon Collin suggested that linguistic integration is important in supporting social and professional integration. This has traditionally been done face-to-face but increasingly it is being done online. Advantages of online courses for migrants fall into two major categories: they can anticipate their linguistic integration before arriving; and after migration, they can take online courses to facilitate a work-family-language learning balance. He described a questionnaire about perceptions of online learning answered by 1,361 adult migrants in Quebec. The common pattern was to take an online course before arrival, and then a face-to-face course after arrival. Respondents thought online courses were more helpful for developing reading and listening, but not as helpful for developing speaking skills.

The strand Leveraging learning analytics for students, faculty and institutions brought together papers focusing on the highly topical area of learning analytics. In their paper, Implementing learning analytics in higher education: A review of the literature and user perceptions, Nobuko Fujita and Ashlyne O’Neil indicated that there are benefits of learning analytics for educators in terms of improving courses and teaching, and for students in terms of improving their own learning. They reported on a study of perceptions of learning analytics by educators, administrators and students. Overall, there was a concern with the impact on students; the main concerns reported included profiling students, duty to respond, data security and consent.

In her presentation, An examination of active learning designs and the analytics of student engagement, Leni Casimiro indicated that active learning has four main components: experiential, interactive, reflective, and deep (higher-order). She reported on a study making use of learning analytics to determine to what extent students were in fact engaged in active learning. Descriptive analytics revealed that among the three courses examined, there was considerable variation in levels of activity; this was due to differences in student outcomes (tasks should help students focus rather than distracting them), teacher participation (teacher presence is essential), interactivity (teacher participation is important, as is the quality of questions), and the nature of students (asynchronous communication may be preferred by international students). Because of the weight given to teacher participation in active learning, it deserves special attention.

In his presentation, Formative analytics: Improving online course learning continuously, Shunping Wei explained that formative analytics are focused on supporting the learner to reflect on what has been learned, what can be improved, which goals can be achieved, and how to move forward. Formative analytics reports should be provided not only to management, but to teachers. It is possible to track whether students access all parts of an online course and whether they do so often, which would likely be signs of a good learner. It is also possible to create a radar map for a certain person or group, comparing their performance with the average.

The strand Mobile learning: Learning anytime, anywhere brought together a number of different perspectives on m-learning. In their presentation, Design principles for an innovative learner-determined mobile learning solution for adult literacy, Aga Palalas and Norine Wark spoke about their project focusing on a literacy uplift solution in the context of surprisingly low adult literacy rates in Canada. They have created a cross-platform mobile app for formal and informal learning incorporating gamification elements within a constructivist framework, but with more traditional behaviourist components as well. Based on data obtained in their study to date, key design themes and principles have been determined as follows:

  • mobility: design for the mobile learner;
  • learner-determined: respond to the learner;
  • context: integrate environmental influences.

Future plans include presentation of the pedagogical and technological principles and guidelines, and replication of the study in different contexts.

In her presentation, English to go: A critical analysis of apps for language learning, Heather Lotherington suggested that there is an element of technological determinism in mobile-assisted language learning (MALL). In MALL, there can be an app-only/content-oriented approach which gives you a course-in-a-box; or design-oriented learning which uses the affordances of mobile technologies in customised learning. Examining the most popular commercial language learning apps, she found that most were underpinned by ‘zombie pedagogies’ involving grammar-translation, audiolingualism, teaching by testing, drill and kill, decontextualised vocabulary, and so on. Ultimately, there were multiple flaws in theory, pedagogy, and practice. This led to failures from the point of  view of mobility (with a need to record language in a quiet room rather than in everyday settings), gamification, and language teaching (there was, for example, generally a 4-skills model of language learning, which is outdated in an era of multimodal communication). Companies are also gathering users’ data for their own purposes. It is essential, she concluded, that language teachers are involved in designing contemporary approaches to mobile language learning; and teachers should also be familiar with content-based apps so they can incorporate them strategically in design-based language teaching and avoid technological determinism. Later, in question time, she went on to suggest that what we are currently confronted with is a difficult interface between slow scholarship and fast marketing.

In her presentation, New delivery tool for mobile learning: WeChat for informal learning, Rongrong Fan explained that WeChat has taken over from QQ as the most popular messaging platform in China. WeChat incorporates instant messaging, official accounts, and ‘moments’ (this works on the same principle as sharing materials on Facebook). Some institutions are using official accounts which push learning material to students, which could be as little as a word a day; an advantage is that this can support bite-sized learning, but a disadvantage is that too many subscriptions can lead to ‘attention theft’. WeChat can be used for live broadcasting with low fees; this allows more direct interaction but the long-term learning effects and value are questionable. It is also possible to set up virtual learning communities in the form of WeChat groups; this can be motivating and help to overcome geographical barriers, but learners may not be making real progress if they are learning only from each other. She concluded that WeChat can be integrated into formal learning as a complementary platform; that use of WeChat could be incorporated in teacher training to give teachers more options for delivering their content; and that a strong learner support team is needed.

The strand Virtual reality and simulation in fact covered both virtual and augmented reality. In his presentation, Flipping a university for a global presence with mirrored reality, Michael Mathews spoke about the Global Learning Center at Oral Roberts University.  Augmented and virtual reality, he said, are additive to the experience that students receive, and can help us reach the highest level of Creating in Bloom’s Taxonomy. The concept of mirrored reality brings together augmented and virtual reality. These technologies can offer ways of reaching a diverse range of students scattered around the world.

In my own presentation, Taking learning to the streets: The potential and reality of mobile gamified language learning, which also formed part of this strand, I outlined the value of an augmented reality approach for helping students to engage with authentic language learning experiences in everyday life.

The strand Augmented reality: Aspects of use in education highlighted a range of contemporary uses of AR. In their talk, Distributed augmented reality training to develop skills at a distance, Mohamed Ally and Norine Wark described AR as an innovative solution to rapidly evolving learning needs. They spoke of their research on an industrial training package about valve repair and maintenance created by Scope AR and delivered onsite via iPads and AR glasses, for which they gathered data relating to the first three levels of the Kirkpatrick Model. The response to the AR training was overwhelmingly positive, with past hands-on training being seen as second-best, and computer-based training being least valued. It was felt that AR could replace lengthy training programmes. Scope AR has now developed a Remote AR collaboration tool which can be used to deliver support at a distance.  The presenters concluded by saying that AR could have many applications in distance education where the expert is in one location but can communicate at a distance to tutor or train someone in a different location.

In his presentation, Augmented reality and technical lab training using HoloLens, Angelo Cosco explained that skilled trades training can be created to be accessed via Microsoft’s HoloLens, allowing students to learn at their own pace, but also offering development opportunities for employees. Advantages include the fact that unlike with VR, there are no issues with nausea; users can wear the HoloLens and move around easily; and recordings can be made and sent immediately through wifi networks.

In their paper, Maximizing learner engagement and skill development through modelling, immersion and gameplay, Naza Djafarova and Leonora Zefi demonstrated a training game (though not an AR game per se) for community nurses in the Therapeutic Communication and Mental Health Assessment Demo video. The game is set up on a choose-your-own-adventure model, giving students a chance to practice what they have learned in a simulated and ‘safe’ environment, which is especially valuable given the lack of practicum placement positions available. Usability testing was conducted to identify benefits and determine possible future improvements. Students felt that the game helped them to build confidence and evoked empathy, and added that they were very engaged. They thought that the purpose of the resource should be explained up front, and requested more instructions on how to play the game, as well as an alternative to scoring. The research team’s current focus is on how to facilitate game design in multidisciplinary teams, and on examining linkages between learning objectives and game mechanics.

CN Tower, Toronto

CN Tower, Toronto. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

While many of the talks described above already began addressing the bigger philosophical issues around digital learning, there were also strands dedicated to these larger questions. The strand Ethical issues in online learning brought together presentations addressing a wide range of ethical issues connected with digital learning. In his presentation, Privacy-preserving learning analytics, Vassilios Verykios noted that we all create a unique social genome through the many activities we engage in online. There is now an unprecedented power to analyse big data for the benefit of society; there can be improvement in daily lives, and verification of research results and reductions in the costs of research projects, but strict privacy controls are needed. There are some regulatory frameworks already in place to protect data, including the US HIPAA and FERPA and the EU Data Protection Directive and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The last of these deals with consent, data governance, auditing, and transparency regarding data breaches. There are data ownership issues, given that companies collect data for their own benefit; from a research perspective, it is important to remember that data is gathered by different bodies with their own ways of managing and storing it.

When it comes to educational data, technology now allows us to monitor students’ activities. Learning analytics is used to improve the educational system as a whole, but also to personalise the teaching of students. ‘Data protection’ involves protecting data so it cannot be accessed by intruders; and ‘data confidentiality’ means data can be accessed by legally authorised individuals. Data de-identification is a way of stripping out individually identifying characteristics from the data collected; one approach to anonymised data is known as k-anonymity. A fundamental challenge comes from the fact that when we anonymise data we do lose a lot of information, and it may somewhat change the statistics; so it is  necessary to find a balance between accessing useful data and protecting privacy.

In his presentation, The ethics of not contributing to digital addiction in a distance education environment, Brad Huddleston indicated that addiction takes place in the same part of the brain, regardless of what you are addicted to. Addiction is about going harder to generate larger quantities of dopamine to overcome the chemical barrier erected by the brain to deflect excessive amounts of dopamine. When it comes digital addiction, the symptoms are: anger when devices are taken away; anxiety disorders; and boredom (the last of these results from a lack of dopamine getting through the brain’s dopamine barrier). Studies have suggested, amongst other things, that computers do not necessarily improve education; that reading online is less effective than reading offline; and that one of the most popular educational games in the world, Minecraft, is also one of the most addictive.

There is a place, he stated, for the analogue to be re-integrated into education, though not to the exclusion of the digital. We should work within the limitations of the brain for each age group; that means less technology use at lower ages. We should teach students what mono-tasking or uni-tasking is about. We also need to understand, he said, that digital educational content is just as addictive as non-educational content.

In her presentation, ‘Troubling’ notions of inclusion and exclusion in open distance and e-learning: An exploration, Jeanette Botha mentioned that the divide between developed and developing nations is increasing, largely because of a lack of internet access in the latter. In the global north, there has traditionally been a concern with equity, participation and profit. In the global south, there has been more of an emphasis on social justice, equity and redress; social justice incorporates the notion of social inclusion. Inclusivity, she went on to say, now has a moral, and by extension, ethical imperative.

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been a focus on the inclusiveness of education. Open and distance learning are seen as a key social justice and inclusion instrument and avenue. However, we haven’t made the kind of progress that might have been expected. One reason is that context matters. Contextual barriers to inclusivity include:

  • technology (infrastructure and affordability);
  • quality (including accreditation, service and quality of the learning experience);
  • cultural and linguistic relevance and responsiveness;
  • perceived racial barriers;
  • ‘graduateness’ and employability of open and distance learning graduates;
  • confusion, conflation and fragmentation in the global open and distance learning environment.

In his presentation, Intercultural ethics: Which values to teach, learn and implement in online higher education and how?, Obiora Ike mentioned global challenges such as the rise of populism, economic and environmental problems, addictions, and issues of inclusivity. Culture matters, he argued, and from culture come values and ethics. Behaving in an ethical way engenders trust and promotes an ethical environment. Globethics.net, based in Geneva, has developed an online database of materials about ethics as well as a values framework. We must integrate ethics with all forms of education, he argued. This is a project being pursued for example through the Globethics Consortium, which focuses on ethics in higher education.

The strand Online learning and Indigenous peoples brought together papers on a variety of projects focused on Indigenous education through online tools. In the talk, A digital bundle – Indigenous knowledge on the internet: Emerging pedagogy, design, and expanding access, Jennifer Wemigwans suggested that respectful representations of knowledge online can be effective in helping others to access that knowledge. While it does not replace face-to-face transmission, cultural knowledge shared by elders online becomes accessible to those who might not otherwise have access to such knowledge, but who might wish to apply it in a range of contexts from the personal to the community sphere.

In her talk, Supporting new Indigenous postgraduate student transitions through online preparation tools, Lynne Petersen spoke about supporting Indigenous students through online tools in the Medical and Health Sciences Faculty at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The work is framed theoretically by Indigenous research methodologies, transition pedagogies, and the role of technology and design in supporting empowerment (however, there are questions for Indigenous communities where face-to-face traditions are prevalent). There may be a disconnect between perceptions of academic or professional competency in the university system, and cultural knowledge and competency within an Indigenous community. Among the online tools created, a reflective questionnaire helps students think through the areas in which they are well-prepared, and the areas where they may need support. Future explorations will address why the tools seem to work well for Maori students, but not necessarily for Samoan or Tongan students, so it may be that as they stand these tools are not appropriate for all communities.

In the paper, Language integration through e-portfolio (LITE): A plurilingual e-learning approach combining Western and Indigenous perspectives, Aline Germain-Rutherford, Kris Johnston and Geoff Lawrence described a fusion of Western and Indigenous pedagogical perspectives. In a WordPress-based social space, each learner can trace their plurilingual journey covering the languages they speak, their daily linguistic encounters, and their cultural encounters. In another part of the website, students are directed to language exercises. After completing these, students can engage in a reflection covering questions relating to the four areas of mind, spirit, heart and body. Students can also respond to questions relating to the Common European Framework to build ‘radar charts’ reflecting their plurilingual, pluricultural identities. The fundamental aim of such an approach is to validate students’ plurilingual, pluricultural knowledge base.

Old City Hall, Toronto

Old City Hall, Toronto. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

Bringing together a wide range of academic and industry perspectives, this conference provided an important forum for discovering digital learning practices from around the globe, while simultaneously thinking through some of the big questions posed by new technologies.

Mapping out the future of VR and AR

Mobile World Congress
Shanghai, China
30 June – 1 July, 2017

The Yu Garden with the Shanghai Tower behind

The Yu Garden ( 豫园) with the Shanghai Tower (上海中心大厦) behind. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

After flying up from Guilin on 29 June, I managed to catch the last two days of the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai. An enormous event that brought together technologists, marketers and investors, and showcased new technologies from phones to drones and robots to cars, it also hosted a series of summits on specific themes. I spent Friday 30 June at the VR and AR Summit, where industry speakers offered their perspectives on the latest developments and the current challenges facing VR and AR.

In his presentation, What is the future of VR & AR?, Christopher Tam (from Leap Motion) argued that there are 5 key elements of VR and AR, namely immersion, imagination, availability, portability and interaction. Before the advent of VR/AR, it was as if our computing platforms only allowed us to peek at the possibilities through a tiny keyhole, but now we can open the door into a utopian world, he said.

Immersion needs high quality graphics and rapid refresh rates; imagination needs good content; but interaction is hard to measure. One way of measuring interaction is by considering human-machine interaction bandwidth. This is a fundamental factor to unlock the mainstream adoption of VR/AR and, while a lot of progress has been made on the other elements, this remains a bottleneck which the industry is currently focused on addressing. The leap from 1D to 2D computing required the invention of the mouse to accompany the keyboard. A mouse works for 2D because it allows one-to-one mapping; however, it is not sufficient in a 3D world, because in such a world we need to do more than moving, selecting, pointing or clicking. Interaction in a 3D world should be inspired by the way we interact with the real world; we should use the model of ‘bare hands’ interaction, given that this is our primary way of interacting with the real world. It is natural, universal, unencumbered, and accessible. In education, children can study in a hands-on style, with more fun and better retention; this is how children learn in the real world. In training, people can practise how to handle complex situations in hands-on ways. In commerce, consumers can enjoy the digital world and be impressed at the first try. In healthcare, we can enable diagnosis, physical therapies and rehabilitation; this moves the barrier between healthcare givers and their patients. In art and design, we can express ourselves by creating in a 3D manner with no restraints. In social relations, we can hang out and interact with friends. In entertainment, there will be easier, more intuitive controlling, and deeper immersion; users can become the protagonists in the stories we are telling, not just operating a person but becoming that person. Thus, hand tracking brings to life the advantages of VR/AR in almost all verticals. He concluded by demonstrating Leap Motion’s hand tracking technology.

In his presentation, The future of virtual reality in China, James Fong (from Jaunt China) suggested that VR is the next stage in a long human quest to experience and interact with captured and created realities; this stretches from cave art through painting, photography, gramophones, motion pictures, television and 3D films to AR and VR. He suggested that there is no need to separate VR and AR as they will merge soon. He briefly pointed out some questions of looming importance: we want Star Trek’s Holodeck or the Matrix experience, but we need to ask how this affects our humanity. Will we become isolated from each other? Will we appreciate human connections? Will we not want to leave the perfect VR/AR world?

In VR/AR storytelling, we can be part of a scripted narrative or take our own pathway through a free-form construct; engage in first-person participation or third-person observation; venture alone or interact with n-number of participants; and focus on private enjoyment or share experiences with family, friends and the world. It will however take a long time for high quality and compelling content to arrive, in part because VR will disrupt every element of content creation. We are used to third-person stories and it will take time to get used to first-person stories. We haven’t yet developed the creative language for working with VR. However, all of the major companies that run operating systems are moving to support VR natively, and this will usher in major developments.

He wrapped up by looking at the Chinese market, where there is no Google, Facebook, Amazon or Twitter, and where the market is dominated by local players like Baidu, WeChat, Weibo, iQiyi, Youku, Tencent, Alipay and WeChat Pay. Therefore a lot of international products don’t work in this country. Some challenges in China are the same as in the rest of the world (e.g., poor headset viewing experiences; market experimenting with live and 360) and some are different (VR experience centres/cafés in China keep interest high; content quality has not improved due to a lack of financing; and the camera and higher quality headset market is starting to pick up). He predicted that China could be the largest VR market in the world by 2018.

The slogan of the 2017 Mobile World Congress, Shanghai. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

In a panel discussion moderated by Sam Rosen (ABI Research), with panel members Alvin Wang (Vive), James Fong (Jaunt China) and Christopher Tam (Leap Motion), it was suggested that 5G will make a big difference to VR/AR adoption because if processing is done online at high speed, we will be able to use much less bulky headsets with less drain on batteries. Alvin Wang mentioned that it will soon be possible to wear headsets that incorporate facial recognition and emotion recognition based on microgestures, allowing interviewers to sense whether an interviewee is nervous or lying, or teachers to sense whether a student understands. He claimed that one of the scarcest commodities in the world is good teachers, but AI technology can give everyone personalised access to the best teachers. He mentioned a project to put 360 cameras in MIT classes so that anyone in the world can join a class by high profile professors. James Fong talked about the power of VR to give people a sense of real-world events; he gave the example of being able to place viewers in the context of refugees arriving in another country, seeing the scale of the phenomenon, maybe being able to touch the boat the refugees arrived on, and thereby building more empathy than is possible with traditional news reports on TV.

In his presentation, The next big test for HMDs: Is the industry prepared?, Tim Droz (from SoftKinetic) said the aim of VR and AR is to take you somewhere other than your current location. There are two types of interaction which are theoretically possible in VR and AR environments; inbound interaction through sight, hearing, smell, taste, and haptics; and outbound interaction through the mind, gaze, facial expression, voice, touch, pushing, knocking, grabbing (etc), gesture, body expression, and locomotion. At the moment only a few of these are available, but as more are built into our equipment, it will become more bulky and unwieldy. However, for mass adoption, a lighter and more seamless experience is needed. He demonstrated some SoftKinetic hardware (like the time-of-flight sensor) and software (like human tracking and full body tracking software) which will make a contribution to interaction through hand movements. This greatly strengthens users’ sense of presence.

In his presentation, 360° and VR User Generated Content – Millions of 360° cameras and smartphones in 2017!, Patrice Roulet (from ImmerVision) suggested that it will soon become normal for everyday smartphones to be used to record and share 360 content, in such a way that it captures your entire environment and the entire moment. It will only take two clicks to share such content on social media. To capture this content, it’s necessary to have a very good lens (such as ImmerVision’s panomorph lens which provides a high quality image across the whole field of view, can be miniaturised for mobile devices, and allows multi-platform sharing and viewing), and advanced 360 image processing. The panomorph lens can be used for much more than capturing 360 images; the internet of things (IoT) is about to evolve from connected devices to smart devices, and this technology has the potential to play a role as part of artificial intelligence (AI) in the upcoming ‘Cambrian explosion’ of the IoT.

In his presentation, VR content: Where do we go next?, Andrew Douthwaite (from WEARVR) stated that one key question is what comes first: adoption of hardware or high quality content; it’s something of a chicken and egg situation. He showed an example of a rollercoaster VR experience on a headset linked to a desktop computer; he noted that many people initially experience some nausea due to the sensory conflict that arises from, for example, sitting still while immersed in a moving VR experience. The emergence of mobile VR is now bringing VR experiences to a much wider audience; Google Cardboard is currently the most widespread example. There is a lot of 360 content on YouTube, and games like Raw Data are helping to drive the industry forward. Google Earth VR is another great example and will help VR reach the mass market, and could impact travel and tourism. New software is now making it possible for users to create VR characters and then inhabit their bodies and act as those characters.

Important future developments are wireless and comfortable VR headsets and more natural input mechanisms, including hand presence. One problem is that much 360 video content is currently of low quality; there is no point in having high quality headsets unless there is also high quality content available. The future of content, he said, lies in storytelling and narrative-based content; social interaction; healthcare; property; training; education; tourism; therapy and mental health (e.g., mindfulness and meditation); serialised content; lifestyle and productivity (though this might be more AR); and WebVR (an open standard which is a kind of metaverse, allowing you to have VR experiences in your web browser).

In his presentation, VR marketing, Philip Pelucha (from 3D Redshift) suggested that the next generation of commerce will not be browser-based; he gave the example of a 360 video of a product leading to a pop-up store allowing customers to further engage with the product. Noting that we already have online universities, he asked how long before virtual reality universities appear. He mentioned that soon we won’t have to commute to work because our phones and laptops will turn the world into our virtual office. In fact, he said, this is already beginning to happen, and when today’s children grow up, they won’t understand why you would have to go to an office to work, or to a shop to buy something. He also spoke about one major area of current development as being language education; a VR/AR app for immersive learning, or to support you when travelling, could be extremely helpful.

In his presentation, Bring the immerse experience to entertainment, movie and live event, Francis Lam (from Isobar China) showcased innovative examples of 360 videos. He showed the B(V)RAIN headset that combines VR with neural sensors; as your emotions change, what you see changes. In effect, the hardware allows you to visualise your mental state, and this can have consequences such as the targets you face in a shooter game, or the taste combinations in drinks that are recommended to you.

He concluded with some issues for consideration. Bad VR, he pointed out, can make you feel sick, so it needs to be high quality and low latency. VR is not just about watching, but rather about experiencing; it is about how, from a first-person point of view, you can go into a scene and experience it. VR is not just visual; audio is important, but there can be other sensors and tactile feedback. We should also ask to what extent VR can be a shared experience, where someone wearing a headset can interact with others who are not. VR is good for communication, a point which is well understood by Facebook; for example, with VR you can make eye contact in a way that is not possible in video chat. VR can allow us to explore new possibilities, such as experimenting with genders. In fact, VR hasn’t arrived yet; there is much more development to happen. Finally, he stated, VR is really not content, it is a medium.

China Mobile slogan, 2017 Mobile World Congress, Shanghai

China Mobile display, 2017 Mobile World Congress, Shanghai. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

There is no doubt that industry perspectives on new technologies differ in some ways from those usually heard at academic and educational conferences, but is important that there is an awareness, and an exchange, of differing views between technologists and educators. After all, we face many of the same challenges, and we stand to gain from collaboratively developing solutions that will work in the educational and other spheres.

Technology meets language and literacy

CLESOL Conference
Hamilton, New Zealand
14-17 July, 2016

IMG_1649B

Victoria Street, Hamilton, New Zealand. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The biannual CLESOL (Community Languages and ESOL) Conference took place this year in the university town of Hamilton, south of Auckland. It addressed the theme of Learners in Context: Bridging the Gaps. 

In my keynote on the first main day of the conference, I addressed the conference theme with respect to mobile learning in a presentation entitled Learners in context: Bridging everyday language learning gaps with mobile devices. I focused on the way that mobile devices can be used to help bridge many language learning gaps: between the haves and have-nots, between traditional and contemporary pedagogies, between episodic and extended learning, between formal and informal learning, and between classroom and situated learning. I suggested that in addition to asking our students to use their mobile devices to support their formal language courses, we should also draw their attention to the opportunities for informal education, where they can use their everyday devices in their everyday contexts to support their everyday language learning.

In their workshop, Many rivers to cross: Engaging learners using computer tools and mobile apps, Patrick Coleman and Daryl Streat from Lincoln University spoke about the inevitability of ongoing technological development, suggesting that educators need to keep up with it because of the implications for learning and work. They took workshop participants through a series of interactive activities accessed on the Many Rivers to Cross Blendspace website. Along the way, they strongly advocated that there must be pedagogical reasons for using new technologies, rather than using them for their own sake. For example, social media tools can be used to extend learning outside the classroom space. They mentioned several models which can be employed to frame our understanding of how we’re using new technologies pedagogically:

  • Ruben Puentedura’s well-known SAMR model;
  • Joan Hughes et al’s alternative RAT model (referring to Replacement, Amplification, Transformation);
  • Chris Hesselbein’s modified RAT model which becomes the RATL model (where L refers to Leadership).

They noted, too, that generic technological training may not always be appropriate; it is important to consider what technological uses are appropriate for any given context.

In her paper, Online activity that works, Jill Hadfield from Unitec mentioned that there has been a considerable rise in the use of the terms interaction and interactivity in the area of educational technologies. While some people use the former to mean human-human interaction and the latter to mean human-machine interaction, most use the terms interchangeably.

Referring to her new book Interaction Online with Lindsay Clandfield, she went on to suggest that interaction between humans and machines could be called weak interaction, and that between humans and humans could be called strong interaction. Much of the former involves tasks that are very behaviourist in nature, while the latter is not only motivating but vital for learning. There are many platforms, ranging from Moodle through Edmodo to Facebook, where students can communicate with others as individuals and groups. She suggested that there are 5 main types of interactive language learning tasks:

  • factual (finding and sharing information on a factual topic)
  • personal (exchanging personal information)
  • fanciful (entering into an imaginary situation)
  • critical (exchanging opinions on a topic, as in a typical discussion forum)
  • creative (where students create something together)

She went on to give examples of interactive tasks pertaining to each of these categories, and showed how they can generate very different types of interaction patterns, such as:

  • Confetti (students all ‘throw in’ their responses to a teacher prompt)
  • Poker (students have numbers and respond in a set sequence)
  • Creative Commons (students are given rules for a collaborative task)

In her presentation, A blended collaborative approach to academic writing: Preliminary findings, Anita Pu outlined early findings from an action research study on an approach to ESL academic writing which blended face-to-face activities and online tasks using Google Docs and Google Hangouts. All participants reported that they liked face-to-face collaborative writing. Six out of 11 liked network-based collaborative writing using Google Docs and Google Hangouts; three commented negatively on passive group members, and difficulties in expressing or understanding opinions. Ten out of 11 liked the overall blended collaborative writing approach. All participants were positive about the convenience of using Google Docs. They were partly positive about Google Hangouts; however, it was found that it couldn’t be used on a phone with a Chinese ID, and they felt it was one more messaging app on top of those they were already using. Pu concluded that while using only network-based collaborative writing might not be a good idea in an ESL context, an overall blended collaborative writing approach is appropriate because it makes learning more fun, makes it easier to pool ideas and knowledge from different people, and provides more opportunities for interaction.

In her talk, Getting it write: Using technology (Google Slides and Blogger) to help engage reluctant writers, Navjot McCormack from Linwood College, Christchurch, spoke about the use of technology to help English language learners overcome barriers to writing. She reported on a research study of students using Google Slides collaboratively to create group presentations, followed by reflecting individually on the process on personal blogs. Despite initial hesitation, students generally demonstrated a high level of interactivity, negotiation, problem-solving and interdependence. Students reacted very positively and collaborated well in the slide creation task, and even during the personal blogging task they were seen helping each other. One important facet of this project was the co-construction of knowledge: students enjoyed playing the role of technology experts and helping the teacher and other. There were a number of challenges: students were less keen on editing the slides once they had been created; although they enjoyed sharing their presentations, they gave little constructive feedback, which is an area that needs to be trained; and technology issues and slow internet speeds were frustrating. Overall, this was an empowering exercise for students.

In his talk, Reflections of a late adopter: Language learning principles and MALL, John Macalister from Victoria University in Wellington suggested that we need to ask how new technologies add value to our teaching. Discussing language learning apps, he suggested that while they have some advantages, some of them also have key limitations: they do not always use language in meaningful ways; they do not necessarily present the most frequent language; and they may cause interference by presenting similar words and phrases simultaneously. He pointed out that these apps can play a useful supporting role for motivated language learners who already have some experience of the language, and suggested that they could be used in a targeted way by teachers to complement language learning in the classroom, especially if teachers exploit the gamification elements typical of these apps.

In his presentation, The future of language learning: AI and CALL, Wolfgang Sperlich from NorthTec asked whether we might see robotic language teachers in the future. He spoke about the trend towards automation of language assessment, where all components including writing and speaking are assessed by software using statistical matching. There are various dangers here, including that teachers will increasingly teach towards these automated tests, using the restricted conceptions of language that may underpin them, and the limited tasks that may compose them. He concluded that AI and CALL have positive potential but that we need to guard against their limitations.

In her presentation, Mapping the spaces between learners and teachers: A guide for critical pedagogy, Margaret Franken spoke about the interplay of complex epistemological and pedagogical space. In her discussion of pedagogical space, as a space within which there is a particular configuration and alignment of learning resources, she suggested that in addition to the well-known social constructivist concept of the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), we should also consider the subconcepts of the ZAA (Zone of Available Assistance; that is, the resources available to provide assistance to a learner) and ZPA (Zone of Proximal Adjustment; that is, the subset of the ZAA which is appropriate for a learner at a given moment). These are concepts drawn from the work of Rosemary  Luckin in particular. She went on to mention that we need to take into consideration spaces which are beyond our educational gaze, such as those social media forums where students exchange academic support with other online community members, who thus come to function as brokers of literacy practices and knowledge.

It was very  informative to attend a language and literacy conference where presenters approached educational technologies from a specifically language-oriented viewpoint, thus bringing different perspectives to bear on the technology compared to those commonly heard at dedicated educational technology events.

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