Knowledge & Content


The EU has an ongoing row with Google over allegations that it manipulates search results in its favour and generally is becoming too powerful for the Internet market.

I noted recently that Google’s search results show YouTube links quite prominently placed on the first page. Not in a separate box, but among the result links and, hence, pushing other items out of the first page list. While YouTube links are indeed quite relevant in most of the cases, the suspicion arises that Google tries to further traffic to YouTube for reasons of generating advertising revenue.

The danger that the one-stop-shop (that users want) also becomes a manipulative engine in showing the results others want us to see was always evident. But, apparently, a new age may be dawning with Google under investigation and the demand from the Commission that it has to provide the possibility to “forget” and delete information about individuals on request. That will be a challenge and a half, for not only would it be difficult to establish that a request is genuine, but to distinguish between hundreds of John Appleseeds is near impossible.

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My colleagues here at the Vienna University of Education are involved in a series of interesting studies and projects that investigate the interface between the education system (schools) and sciences in real life and the home.

Divide

One rather shocking piece of evidence emerging from these is that youngsters behave in a very disparate way to the level of their knowledge! When project researchers in the appropriately called McKioto project tested 800 kids on their general school-informed understanding of biocultural diversity, climatic footprints, and healthy eating, the level of informedness was relatively well-developed and showed no significant divergence in pupils from differing socio-economic backgrounds. On the other hand, when asked about their daily habits (eating, physical exercises, etc.), kids from low income families showed little or no manifestation of that knowledge in every-day life. In a similar vein, according to many studies, the smoking behaviour in society has changed from originally being a high-class habit (gentlemen’s clubs) to a sign of poverty and poor education.

Not that these results provide us with totally new insights, but they raise many questions when one’s confronted with the evidence. Why does knowledge developed in kids stay merely theoretical and in school? Why is the impact on children’s lives so much greater at home (even where parents spend less time with kids than teachers)? Why is unhealthy behaviour so persistent in low-income families. Fact is that healthy eating, physical exercise, avoidance of unhealthy behaviour (e.g. smoking), or clima conformant activities (cycling) are often more affordable than their unhealthy variants. Still, there is a cultural divide that needs to be bridged urgently, and it is critical for the well-being of the next generation that schools play a shaping role in this change.

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I’d argue that most of the school beginners at the age of six or thereabouts are positively excited at the prospect of going to school. However, this attitude changes rather rapidly even in the pre-puberty stage. Something is clearly wrong that turns zeal to aversion. I believe that any good educational policy, national or international (like the Rethinking Education Strategy of the EU), needs to take note of this.

Looking at the prevailing policy objectives I find that the joy of learning isn’t represented at all, either through ignorance or by deliberate design. Instead efficiency, productivity and the compliance to satisfy labour market demands are the sole drivers of our education systems. Naturally, the stakeholders become increasingly dissatisfied with being pushed into a world that has only something to offer in industrial terms. Competences, knowledge and research are all directed towards growth in productivity – and nothing else! Technology plays its part in this, as can be detected in the role it is given as a solution to everything by the European Commission in its various strategies and visions of the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all promoting to integrate education into the entertainment industry (via Serious Games etc.). Education was always directed towards the labour market and its evolution, but there was something else too. We need to rediscover the values of curiosity and self-fulfilment as a purpose of learning. I’d even go as far as to say that these are our basic instincts as a species: the drive to discover and understand the world around us, not to make us more productive, but to make us more knowledgeable and wise. The satisfaction coming from the joy of learning (and working, for that matter) and the resulting improved self can be a very powerful driver for more and better learning and thus also more productive solutions.

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I have recently bemoaned the problems connected to the upscaling of academic publishing. There are now literally hundreds of new journals and publication outlets available and they continue to mushroom. As a consequence, I receive, on an almost daily basis, invitations to submit or review articles.

The concerning bit in these offers is the economy attached to it. For a freshly created educational journal with no track record and no citation index, I’m asked to offer my time and labour for free when it comes to peer reviews. The journal’s website simply states: “Payment: Volunteer job, no payment“! For publishing an article, on the other hand, they charge an Article Publication Fee of $100.

Most researchers these days are under pressure to publish. At the same time, my university does not operate publication budgets for departments to pay such publication fees. Therefore, this causes some serious friction. In some cases, one could pay publications out of third-party funded project budgets, but this would have to be eligible cost. In the current climate of cost cutting, there is little prospect of researchers being supplied with substantial publication funding, and, once again, small-budget universities will be hit hardest.

This current turbulence feels like a counter revolution to the open access publishing movement by flooding the market with no-name journals to cream off academic funding (a long tail economy), or if you want your publications to be visible and of status pay through the nose for established journals. We seem to be heading for a two-tier publishing economy.

I fear that a completely new dynamic will shake up the academic publishing market, where the more established journals charge fees that are essentially unaffordable, whereas no-name newcomers emerge everywhere, but leave you wondering about the viability, reach, and longevity of the series, and what effect your submission might have on your visibility and career.

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At a recent book sprint in London for an Open Education Handbook, I followed an interesting presentation by Phil Barker (CETIS) based on this article.

We all know about the many different interpretations and uses of the word “openness” and “open something” (open source, open data, open educational resources, etc. etc.). The interesting bit here is the moral interpretation of openness.

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One key point to note is that openness can be commercial. Patents can be “open” in that they can allow other developers to build and innovate on them. This means, “open” does not directly equate to “free of charge”, although it can be. “Open” could also refer to the freedom to distribute. Press releases typically operate in this sphere, because their authors are interested in their texts to be copied, distributed, and even re-written by others, whose name will be on the published article.

Where moral interpretations of openness get really interesting is on the dark side of the law. According to this spectrum graph above, and as we all know only too well, the legalities of content are quite often ignored. On the simple most common scale people just ignore IPR and distribution rights. Sharing music and other stuff with friends is common practice (and has been for a long time). This type of (ab)use is very common in education when failing to reference the creator/author of items, or when using copyright protected materials in teaching.

Above and beyond this, producing illegal copies, counterfeit products and/or claiming someone else’s work as one’s own are definitely more serious forms of brute-force “openness” that equates to theft. However, it is quite common practice that in academia professors claim IPR over student work or putting their name on their articles without any major contribution.

 

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This is another very useful tool to manage your cloud and Web 2.0 accounts: justdelete.me

justdelete.me

If your accounts proliferate like mine all over the Internet, with more and more services that require registration just to see what they are all about and whether they are worth while using, then this service comes in handy. I typically use a throwaway e-mail, username and password for testing new sites, but since I do put in some content and profile data, it is useful to also have an easy way to removing them if no longer required.

Justdelete.me provides an easy traffic light (green-yellow-red) notation on how easy it is to delete an account in various services. Black signifies that deletion of your profile and account is impossible. The unpleasant surprise was that among these were services I value a lot, like wikipedia, myopenid and wordpress.com.

Interesting also the MOOC providers:

coursera justdelete.me

udacity justdelete.me

edX justdelete.me

Coursera has made it ‘hard’ to delete an account whereas EdX and Udacity have no facility to delete. Now this could also herald a new way of self-destruction after time-out, as has often been asked for in personal data management and privacy fora, where the Internet should be engineered to be able to “forget”. Unfortunately, in the days and age of Big Data, this is probably not what is happening to our data…

 

 

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I just completed the twelve week massive open online course (MOOC) on Complex System Science (Complexity Explorer). It has been a very interesting and enjoyable experience.

SFIcertificate

This is not the first MOOC I attended or at least registered for, so it also led to some general reflection on which of the MOOCs I liked and why. The outcome was quite surprising to myself since it turned out that I do enjoy conservative teaching methods. This, however, is not the full picture and other factors emerged as important favourable conditions.

As indicator for a positive MOOC experience I took the fact that I did not drop out and succeeded in completing the entire course. And here I have to say that for many a MOOC I have shown an initial interest (e.g. MobiMOOC, EduMOOC, etc.), but this vanished during the run-time of the course, sometimes already at the startup phase. Whether to drop out or not depended mostly on time constraints and effort-vs-benefits considerations, i.e. how much do I get out for the time investment I put in. This led to a prioritisation level for each course, and in many cases the MOOC priority over other parts of life was simply too low to persist.

In this post, I won’t go into the debate on what is a MOOC and what isn’t. Let’s just say it’s an open online course covering a specific topic over a (longer) period of time with some sort of syllabus structure. This distinguishes it from a one-off webinar or online hangouts, etc.

To cut to the chase, here is the list of MOOCs I enjoyed and completed, in chronological order:

Note that the courses were of very different nature: CCK11 and LAK11 were so-called connectivist MOOCs whereas the Yale and SFI courses were simple video deliveries of the lecture kind. In the first two, I enjoyed the community aspect of the course. It brought me in contact with similar minded people from other parts of the world in an vivid exchange and led to lasting connections. In the video courses, it was the self-timing component that enabled me to complete. While the former contained some timetabled events, such as weekly debates, the latter were completely free of timetabling. Even after loosing a week or two, I was able to catch up and get back on top.

Yes, the social component in Yale and SFI were underdeveloped or missing (or not used by myself), still this did no harm to my learning. I want to emphasise that I do not quantify my learning into measurable chunks of increased competence or knowledge units. It is merely the feeling of satisfaction to have learned something new of value to myself (be it professional or simply interesting).

What made the courses worth while my time and effort? I thought long and hard about this, and why it was these courses that I completed successfully and not others. What were the commonalities despite them being almost diagonally different in style, purpose and delivery.

The most important criterion I could distill is a deep personal interest in the respective topic (Astrophysics, Learning, Complex Systems). This was an absolutely essential initial motivator to get me onto the journey.

Secondly, an inspired expert enthused about the subject they present. This amplified my initial interest and kept me going. I also have a great interest in quantum physics, but sadly haven’t yet found the enthusiastic provider that brings this about.

Thirdly, a non-threatening environment to learn. Even though some topics were extremely challenging, I credit the presenters with this important attribute.

Finally, the amount of Shannon information content. Shannon’s information theory describes among other things the amount of interesting newness and surprise in pieces of information. All four courses contained a high level of newness for me. It also has to be said that follow-up courses, e.g. LAK12, decreased rapidly in this respect and turned information into noise. Once the noise level over new information becomes irrational, I lose interest very quickly and the effort-benefit ratio turns negative.

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There is a nice application to visualise the citation network of a publication. Paperboy is the work of two bachelor students at KU Leuven. It runs on Java and uses Microsoft Academic Search as a back-end engine, then unfolds the citations into a network graph, which you can browse:

Paperboy

Ok, the app has some weaknesses, which mostly have to do with the limitations of academic internet search by Microsoft and Google. But all in all, this is a very nice piece of student work that can be developed into something greater, bigger, better.

I should also mention that the students ask for feedback via a survey.

 

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Research activities have come a long way. Publication of scientific output has been dramatically upscaled over the past decade through internal and external HE policies. So much so, that it has become a bubble that threatens to burst.

Everybody publishes – lots! When I say everybody, I mean entire institutions being loaded with publication duties that previously only had a teaching mission (FE colleges, teacher training or arts colleges, polytechnics, etc.). In the accumulative system, PhD students too have to produce multiple quality articles instead of the previously required (single) doctoral thesis. This adds tens of thousands of people publishing large quantities of academic papers across Europe. Furthermore, also established universities squeeze the last bit out of their researchers in order for them to remain intellectually visible in a flooded market. Papers have become the currency by which researchers and the intellectual capital of institutions are quantified and benchmarked. Hence, the more papers the better!

In the same way as the production of academic papers has exponentially increased, so has the publishing market. There are now oodles of journals that offer themselves as outlets for academic products (ranging from the unknown start-up to the dodgy scammer). And every week there will be more. In some ways, Open Access, which now finally has taken off in a bigger way, has complicated things. Authors have very little understanding where they could and should publish their stuff in order to satisfy four key demands: (1) be visible to the relevant research community, (2) not being charged for publishing, (3) providing open access to their works for others, (4) being quality assured in a transparent and accepted way.

The entire academic publishing field has been blown out of proportions and over-scaled to the extent where parts of the complex system are no longer functional and therefore prone to system failure. One of these components is the quality assurance from peer reviews. I used to get requests for reviews ever so often from established conferences and journals. I enjoyed it a lot since it forced me to read and reflect, it allowed me to help and support peers in their quest for knowledge and it kept me up-to-date. All in all a good system. However, this type of volunteer-ism and honorary work is not scalable to the extent that the present situation would demand. Reviews are unpaid extra work and lately have developed the tendency of follow-up procedures where reviewed articles boomerang back to the reviewer often several times. At the same time, my own resources should be spent on actively publishing not on reviewing (say my bosses!). It simply isn’t my job to be a full-time lector and editor, and I am sure I am not alone in this.

This situation of supply outstripping (a) demand, and, (b) resources leads, in my opinion, to a spiral of reduced quality. Part of this has to do with lack of thoroughness on part of the peer reviews and slackness in the quality selection processes. But also the relative inexperience with which some authors and reviewers approach the matter of academic publication is amplified by the lack of time for thorough feedback and support. Hence it becomes a systemic failure of the quality processes which are meant to control how much noise is produced and reviewed.

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Fascinating, how fast industry jumps on the MOOC bandwaggon! However, it can hardly come more farcical than this example:

SIPX is yet another spin-off company out of Stanford “created to manage copyrights and deliver digital documents for the higher-education marketplace“. What SIPX identify as a problem is that content owners are faced with piracy that affects distribution and fair compensation. Equally, stretched library budgets to acquire licences hinders professors to prescribe digital materials and students studying them. All well known issues. However, despite their claim that they’re based on research from 2005, I see SIPX merely as parasitic squatters trying to occupy the middle ground between university libraries and students/lecturers (and charging for it).  Here is why:

According to their description, a professor offers a link to a SIPX registered resource, and posts the link. “A student, who clicks on such a link, is authenticated for applicable discounts, pays any necessary royalties, and then accesses the digital content for electronic reading, printing or both, all in a single, seamless user experience.” [link]

In the typical universities that I know, the university library already pays for the usage licence and receives a discount from publishers if available. Especially, if they buy large numbers of a book or buy more stuff from the same publisher. So, why, I ask, would the student now pay for an access licence again, plus presumably an additional charge to SIPX?

Neither is SIPX proposing to protect the copyright of authors or publishers. Despite their problem statement above, it is unlikely they’d go to court to defend the IPR of a content provider. This is typically the duty of publishers not of the brokers in the middle.

Even bolder is their statement on MOOC readiness [link]. With SIPX, “MOOC providers can enrich the student experience with a variety of readings that are otherwise difficult to clear for copyright”. What part in Massive OPEN Online Course (MOOC) did they not understand?

To me, companies like SIPX are part of the problem. The solution is quite simple: Open Access. Professors create their materials as OERs and OAI articles, and should only promote open access materials to their students. Even more so in a MOOC.

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