Leaders and Monitors: The best and the worst of education technology

Last week I attended the Holyrood Connect Learning Through Technology event where I saw a rather jawdropping demonstration of the very best and very worst that education technology has to offer. The best, and it really was wonderful, came from teachers Natalie Lockhead and Nicola Paterson, and pupils Rebecca and Stephen from Kirklandneuk Primary School, who are part of the school’s Digital Leaders Network. The Digital Leaders Network encourages children who are confident with using all kinds of technology to support their teachers and peers by sharing their skills and knowledge, while at the same time enabling the children to develop confidence, literacy and skills for life.

Stephen and Rebecca stood up in front of an audience of over a hundred delegates and spoke confidently and articulately about the importance of the Digital Leaders initiative and how much they enjoyed and benefitted from being part of it. Inspirational has become a rather throwaway term used to describe speakers, but these young people really, truly, were an inspiration.

Their honesty, enthusiasm and willingness to share was in stark contrast to the previous presenters and event sponsors Lightspeed Systems who presented their “online safety and web filtering systems” for education. As well as just blocking content, Lightspeed’s Web Filter also incorporates hierarchical filtering “to keep students safe, even when they leave the classroom,” along with web activity reporting functionality “from the high level to the detail”. I presume in this instance “the detail” means individual students.

According to their press, Lightspeed Systems create tools to help schools manage and filter their networks as well as empower classroom learning. There  doesn’t seem to be any mention of trivial issues such as privacy, ethics and consent. One of their products, Classroom Orchestrator, is designed to allow teachers to monitor students screens and devices “making it easy to see who’s off-task, who needs extra attention, and who’s excelling”. Orchestrator allows teachers to view all students screens from a dashboard, “ensures safety by seeing who is protected by the webfilter and who isn’t”, and perhaps most worryingly, “record sessions to store a students activity to share or investigate.” This immediately rang all sorts of alarm bells; where is that data being stored, who owns it, who has access to it? Although Lightspeed’s products are primarily designed for use on schools’ own mobile devices, the presenter added that they can also be installed on children’s own mobile devices and can be used to monitor their web activity outwith school hours. Apparently they’ve had, and I quote, “Lots of positive feedback about teachers taking control of and locking apps on students’ mobile devices.” That was the point where my jaw really hit the floor.

I made a point of asking during questions who owned and had access to the data that Lightspeed gathers. The reply was that the data is stored on servers in the UK and clients have the right to access this data under the Freedom of Information act. Seriously? I asked again if clients really had to submit an FOI request to access their own data and the presenter replied that they could just e-mail their sales representative for access. I lost the will to live at that point.

The contrast between the two presentations couldn’t have been more stark, and both demonstrated in quite different ways, why it is so important to engage children and learners in their own education, why we need to listen to them, not eavesdrop on them, and why we need to respect their privacy and consent. And most of all, it brought home to me just how critical trust and openness has to be in our use of technology in education. After all, if we don’t trust and learn from our children, how will they ever learn to trust and respect others?

NB Throughout the presentation, the Lightspeed representative seemed to refer to Classroom Orchestrator as Classroom Monitor. There is another UK based ed tech company called Classroom Monitor that markets an assessment platform for teachers. There is no link between Lightspeed Systems and Classroom Monitor and their products are not related.

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Day of Digital Ideas 2015

Digital humanities is an area that I’ve been interested in for a long time but which I haven’t had much opportunity to engage with, so earlier this week I was really excited to be able to go along to the Digital Scholarship Day of Digital Ideas at the University of Edinburgh.  In the absence of my EDINA colleague Nicola Osborne and her fabulous live blogging skills, I live tweeted the event and archived tweets, links and references in a storify here: Digital Day of Ideas 2015.  I also created a TAGS archive of tweets using Martin Hawksey’s clever Twitter Archiving Google Spreadsheet.

The event featured three highly engaging keynotes from Ben Schmidt, Anouk Lang, and Ruth Ahnert, and six parallel workshops covering historical map applications and OpenLayers, corpus analysis with AntConc, data visualisations with D3, Drupal for beginners, JavaSCript basics and Python for humanities research.

Humanities Data Analysis

~ Ben Schmidt, Northeastern University

Ben explored the role of data analysis in humanities and explored the methodological and social challenges presented by humanities data analysis.  He began by suggesting that in many quarters data analysis for humanities is regarded as being on a par with “poetry for physics”.  Humanities data analysis can rase deep objections from some scholars, and seem inimical to the meaning of research.  However there are many humanistic ways of thinking about data that are intrinsic to the tradition of humanities. Serendipity is important to humanities research and there is a fear that digital research negates this, however it’s not difficult to engineer serendipity into cultural data analysis.

But what if borrowing techniques from other disciplines isn’t enough? Digital humanities needs its own approaches; it needs to use data natively and humanistically, as a source of criticism rather than to “prove” things. Humanities data analysis starts with the evidence, not with the hypothesis.  The data needs to tell stories about structures, rather than individual people.   Johanan Drucker argues that what we call “data” should really be called “capta”:

Capta is “taken” actively while data is assumed to be a “given” able to be recorded and observed. From this distinction, a world of differences arises. Humanistic inquiry acknowledges the situated, partial, and constitutive character of knowledge production, the recognition that knowledge is constructed, taken, not simply given as a natural representation of pre-existing fact.

Johanna Drucker on data vs. capta

Ben went on to illustrate these assertions with a number of examples of exploratory humanities data analyses including using ngrams to trace Google books collections, building visualisations of ship movements from digitised whaling logbooks, the Hathi Trust bookworm, and exposing gendered language in teachers reviews on Rate my Teacher.  (I’ve worked with ships musters and log books for a number of years as part of our Indefatigable 1797 project, I’ve long been a fan of Ben’s whaling log visualisations which are as beautiful as they are fascinating.)

Ships tracks in black, show the outlines of the continents and the predominant tracks on the trade winds. © Ben Schmidt

Ben concluded by introducing the analogy of Borges The Garden of Forking Paths and urged us to create data gardens and labyrinths for exploration and contemplation, and to provide tools that help us to interpret the world rather than to change it

Gaps, Cracks, Keys: Digital Methods for Modernist Studies

~ Anouk Lang, University of Edinburgh

Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities

Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities

Anouk explored the difficulties and opportunities facing scholars of twentieth-century literature and culture that result from the impact of copyright restrictions on the digitisation of texts and artefacts. Due to these restrictions many modern and contemporary texts are out of digital reach.  The LitLong project highlights gaps in modernist sources caused by copyright law.  However there are cracks  in the record where digital humanities can open up chinks in the data to let in light, and we can use this data as the key to open up interesting analytic possibilities.

During her presentation Anouk referenced the Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities, situating it in reference to the Blast Manifesto, Nathan Hensley’s Big Data is Coming for Your Books, and Underwood, Long and So’s Cents and Sensibility.

By way of example, Anouk demonstrated how network analysis can be used to explore biographical texts. Biographies are curated accounts of people’s lives constructed by human and social forces and aesthetic categories. There is no such thing as raw data in digital text analysis: all the choices about data are subjective. Redrawing network maps multiple times can highlight what is durable. For example network analysis of biographical texts can reveal the gendered marginality of writers’ wives.

In conclusion, Anouk argued that digital deconstruction can be regarded as a form of close reading, and questioned how we read graphical forms such as maps and network illustrations. How do network maps challenge established forms of knowledge? They force us to stand back and question what our data is and can help us to avoid the linearity of narrative.

Closing the Net: Letter Collections & Quantitative Network Analysis

~ Ruth Ahnert, Queen Mary University of London

Ruth’s closing keynote explored the nature of complex networks and the use of mathematical models to explore their underlying characteristics.  She also provided two fascinating examples of how social network analysis techniques can be used to analyse collections of early modern letters, a set of Protestant letters (1553 – 1558) and Tudor correspondence in State Papers Online,  to reconstruct the movement of people, objects, and ideas.   She also rather chillingly compared the Tudor court’s monitoring of conspiracies and interception of letters with the contemporary surveillance activities of the NSA.

Ruth Ahnart.  Picture by Kathy Simpson, @kilmunbooks

Ruth Ahnart. Picture by Kathy Simpson, @kilmunbooks.

Ruth introduced the concept of betweenness* – the connectors that are central to sustaining a network.  Networks are temporal, they change and evolve over time as they are put under pressure.  Mary I took out identifiable hubs in the Protestant network by executing imprisoned leaders, however despite removing these hubs, the networks survived because the sustainers survived, these are the people with high betweenness.  In order to fragment a network it is necessary to remove, not the hubs or edges, but the nodes with high betweenness.

Ruth went on to introduce Eigenvector centrality which can be used to measure the quality of people’s connections in a network, and she explored the curious betweenness centrality of Edward Courteney, 1st Earl of Devon (1527 – 1556). Courteney’s social capital is quantifiable; he was typical of a character with high Eigenvector centrality, who cuts across social groups and aligned himself with powerful nodes.

In conclusion, Ruth suggested that network analysis can be used to open archives, it doesn’t presume what you’re looking for, rather it can inspire close reading by revealing patterns previously unseen by traditional humanity research.

I was certainly hugely inspired by Ruth’s presentation.  I have some passing familiarity with the concepts of network analysis and betweenness centrality from the work of Martin Hawksey and Tony Hirst however this it the first time I have seen these techniques applied to historical data and the possibilities are endlessly inspiring.  One of the man aims of our Indefatigable 1797 research project is to reveal the social networks that bound together a small group of men who served on the frigate HMS Indefatigable during the French Revolutionary War.  Using traditional techniques we have pieced together these connections through an analysis of ships musters, Admiralty archives, contemporary press reports, personal letters and birth, marriage and death certificates.  We have already built up a picture of a complex and long-lived social network, but I now can’t help wondering whether a more nuanced picture of of that network might emerge through the application of social network analysis techniques.  Definitely something to think more about in the future!

Many thanks to Anouk Lang and the Digital Scholarship team for organising such a thought provoking, fun and engaging event.

* For an excellent explanation of the concept of betweeness, I can highly recommend reading Betweenness centrality – explained via twitter, featuring Tony Hirst and my former Cetis colleagues Sheila MacNeill, Wilbert Kraan, and Martin Hawksey.  It’s all about the genetically modified zombies you see…

Reusing Open Resources: Learning in Open Networks for Work, Life and Education

rorBack in 2003 I contributed a chapter to Allison LIttlejohn’s book Reusing Online Resources: A Sustainable Approach to E-learning and I’m delighted to say that, together with co-authors Sheila MacNeill and Martin Hawksey, I have another paper in the subsequent book in this series Reusing Open Resources: Learning in Open Networks for Work, Life and Education edited by Allison Littlejohn and Chris Pegler.

“Every day, learners use and reuse open, digital resources for learning. Reusing Open Resources offers a vision of the potential of these open, online resources to support learning. The book follows on from Reusing Online Resources: A Sustainable Approach to E-learning. At that time focus was on the creation, release and reuse of digital learning resources modeled on educational materials. Since then the open release of resources and data has become mainstream, rather than specialist, changing societal expectations around resource reuse. Social and professional learning networks are now routine places for the exchange of online knowledge resources that are shared, manipulated and reused in new ways, opening opportunities for new models of business, research and learning.”

~Littlejohn and Pegler

Our paper,  “Analytics for Education”, presents an overview of the development and use of analytics in the context of education through a critical analysis of current developments in the domain of learning analytics, and contrasts the potential value of analytics research and development with real world educational implementation and practice. The paper also focuses on the development of education content analytics, considers the legal and ethical implications of collecting and analysing educational data and highlights new developments including the exploration of data from massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Reusing Open Resources also includes papers on a wide range of current topics including European OER policy, workplace learning in informal networks, collaborate knowledge creation and, of course, MOOCs.

Several papers from this book, including ours, have already been published in a special edition of JIME, the Journal of Interactive Media in Education, Reusing Resources – Open for Learning.

Scottish Learning Festival

Earlier today I made a brief foray to the Scottish Learning Festival for the first time. I don’t usually attend the event as I’ve never worked directly with the school sector, but this year I thought I would take the opportunity to go along to the panel on Gaelic medium education and to hear Cabinet Secretary Mike Russell’s keynote.

Although I was born and educated in the Outer Hebrides, I am not a native Gaelic speaker as I’m very much part of that generation whose parents and grandparents thought there was little reason to pass the language on to their children. Despite my own poor knowledge of the language, we decided to send our daughter to Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu so she would have an opportunity to learn the language and benefit from a bilingual education. She’s now in her third year of full immersion Gaelic medium education and has taken to it like a tunnag to water! Consequently it was very encouraging to hear that HMI have gathered evidence of the positive impact of full immersion Gaelic medium education. The importance of preschool Gaelic medium provision was also acknowledged, as was the need to engage the wider community in Gaelic education. There was also a lovely case study about the enhancement of Gaelic medium education in Balivanich school on Benbecula, which specifically referred to the positive impact of pupils coming to the school who did not speak English as their first language. The ability of these children, from Poland, Latvia and Russia, to quickly learn English, and their enthusiasm to also learn Gaelic, was a great encouragement to local children.

Full house for the Cabinet Secretary's Keynote

Full house for the Cabinet Secretary’s Keynote

Mike Russell’s keynote, covered a range of issues and objectives but retained a central focus on the Curriculum for Excellence. Russell pointed out that the CfE doesn’t just encourage diversity, it positively demands it and went on to quote William Sloane Coffin:

“Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.”

Introducing the Robert Owen Award for Education Innovation, Russell quoted Owen and spoke at some length about his legacy

“To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate”.
The Social System, 1826

Other initiatives Russell announced included the creation of a new College for Educational Leadership and a review of the Curriculum for Excellence to be carried out in 2015 by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and OECD.

Despite claiming that the drive to improve Scottish education from “good” to “great” should transcend politics, I couldn’t help feeling that Russell’s keynote had a distinctly political slant. However I certainly can’t disagree with his assertion that “Scottish education needs to get better at gathering in and using data”. Sounds like another strong incentive to further the development of learning analytics techniques!