Wednesday 23 October 2013

Learning: Is it Online or Offline. Are we letting fear get in the way?

Just a short post inspired by reading notes from an upcoming e-assessment faculty meeting. A question came up about offline learning and ereaders in particular. How far can we go with them. A very informed answer was given by Niall Sclater taking reference from his existing article making ebooks more interactive: logistics and ethics. Niall is a key influence in many of the Open University e-learning initiatives and his insights are characteristically insightful.

The article highlights the fragmented e-reader ecosystem. Something we have seen with mobile devices like mobile phones and tablets. Particularly the issues of whether anything more than a static learning interface can reliably be supported across all devices in a sustainable manner. That certainly seems a challenge and highlights how far e-readers need to get. We finally have mobile phones and tablets that can do this reliably but we waited a long time for it. e-readers will probably be no different.

The other side of the coin is where I feel more work can be done. A big step would simply be to look at things in a positive instead of negative light. The idea that users will have concerns over being tracked and put pressure on them is certainly a fair argument. It can and will, but so does taking an exam and people still do it. In fact every time we evolve a new simple approach to doing things this same argument is presented and it blocks just about everything. Ultimately it is about the fear of change. I just talked about conquering fear in another blog and I feel similar challenges are relevant in this issue. The argument is valid but there is always a way to address it and keep people safe.

We need to be skilled at understanding our fears and know what is necessary to deal with and overcome them. People are scared of being tracked because personal data is out there being used incorrectly. It is a real concern. But most of life is a risk and you learn ways to minimise those risks to yourself. In this case the question for me is about how much data to track, how to put users in control of their data (Can they delete it and know it's deleted, or just not share it).

To simplify the issue even further the first thing I would do is allow the choice of whether data is shared or not. Explain briefly that data once it is shared becomes part of the learning experience and thus we haven't yet figured out how to remove it once it is shared but if a user trusts the OU and is willing to share then they can do so. Explain why it can benefit them, that they can stop at any time and what they can do if they want to stop sharing but make it clear that it is like doing most things publicly, you participate at your own risk. Just like sharing your views in public like at a school, work or the supermarket. Other people will hear those views and make their own opinion. They may also share your views with others in misleading ways that affect you negatively. We all accept that sharing information is part of living and it is our responsibility to learn how to do it. Even things we don't always think about like body language are increasingly becoming things we must pay attention to. I feel the same goes for all our new tools. Make it easier for people to understand what information is being shared and how it can be view by others. I feel we need to build this into the process of delivering any experience.

This approach will put many off and they will not share. Fair enough. The point is that they were able to make an informed decision. Others will. I do all the time. Mainly because I trust the person or institution I am dealing with and because I understand the issue quite deeply both as a developer, teacher and as an informed citizen.

My point here is about preventing fear from stifling incremental changes. Learning is going online sure but offline will always exist. Handling fear properly can allow the both to coexist well and shift the focus on the learning and teaching instead of being stifled by fear.

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