A Virtual Professor: Putting Herself in the Hands of Others

The Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University had one of its (now) annual retreats on a beautiful Friday in the clubhouse of a local golf course. One of our faculty members, Professor Carrie Heeter, was in San Francisco, but she worked with colleagues to create a means for her to participate virtually. Her explanation of the approach and how she experienced the day might be very useful for others experimenting with blending virtual participation into real meetings.

They used Zoom, a video service like Skype or Google Hangouts, to connect Carrie in San Francisco to an iPad mounted on a portable stand, and to a laptop, both present in the retreat room. Essentially, the laptop on the stand became Carrie’s virtual presence in the room.

As Carrie wrote, when the retreat moved into about 6 breakout groups, someone in Carrie’s group ‘agreed to “take care of” Carrie’.  As Carrie put it: ‘When Jeremy [Bond] took care of me, he actively turned the iPad to face whoever was speaking. It was amazing. It felt like I was right there at the table, but also weird to not be turning my physical head, while I was virtually looking all around. I also felt bad that he was working so hard thinking about what I was seeing.’

They planned to use a Mini-jam box speaker/microphone to enable Carrie to be heard by the larger group, but it did not work on the day. So it was hard to hear Carrie speaking when we were assembled as the whole group. However, she could hear others very well, even in the big group. Carrie notes: ‘we used the Zoom chat and I would type, then my caretaker would speak for me. A few times I wrote on a piece of paper and held it up to the camera. When I went to lunch I used the share screen function of Zoom to show a word document with big letters saying GONE TO LUNCH BE BACK SOON. I also occasionally Texted room participants. … I used the spotlight function of Zoom to control which of the three window’s was the main one on the iPad.’

Professor Robby Ratan took the table and stand to the flip chart in discussing the notes from his breakout group. Carrie noted: ‘When Robby took notes for our breakout session; he went to Share My Screen mode, which meant I couldn’t use my computer. But I could see really well.’

Carrie joined the retreat at 6am California time, and was “at the retreat” for 7 hours.

The departmental secretary, Heather Brown, carried the portable stand and tablet downstairs and outdoors for a photo of the retreat participants. I’ll post the photo here. As Carrie describes it: ‘When Heather carried me down the stairs and out onto the lawn, there was a visceral feeling of being carried.’ You can see Professor Heeter on the tablet in the front row of the photo, but in another use of virtualization, Carrie had to Photoshop her picture onto the tablet’s screen. Nevertheless, the WiFi was quite good at the retreat center, and even out onto the grass, letting Carrie virtually participate in the photo session, even if invisible [due to the bright sun] in the photo without the touchup on Photoshop.

Photo of Retreat Participants and the Virtual Professor
Photo of Retreat Participants and the Virtual Professor

Carrie’s evaluation of the experience is also useful. She argued: ‘That it “worked” is due in part to the good will, tolerance, and helpfulness of physically present folks, and to the resolve of all of us to make it work. The iPad on the stand was much better than being on someone’s laptop. It was more like having my own place at the table and in the room.

Connecting through both the laptop and the iPad provided continuity (when the iPad turned off or needed to be recharged) as well as providing a second window on the meeting.’

Carrie concludes with a fascinating observation: ‘I was very much in people’s hands — they would raise and lower me to choose the height.’

Professor Carrie Heeter
Professor Carrie Heeter

Books and the Internet in Prisons: Beyond the Right to Read

A British High Court justice has ‘struck down a ban on sending books to prisoners’, as reported by the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/06/world/europe/british-judge-lifts-restriction-on-books-in-prison.html A number of writers, poets and human rights advocates have been pressing for the right of prisoners to buy books from the ‘outside world’. Apparently the prison service had supported access to books, but only through the prison libraries or purchases through the prison service, as a security measure: to prevent the smuggling of other things into the prison, as we have all seen in popular films and television series. It seems to me that it is arguably worth the time and effort of searching packages sent to prisoners in order to enhance access to books. Surely the value of books in educating and supporting the rehabilitation of those in prison is a long-term payoff that offsets the cost of screening.

About a decade ago, I was introduced to an imaginative plan to enable limited access to the Internet from prison. There are a number of programs that enable limited access to electronic text messaging, for example, but by and large, this is a huge hurdle. Nevertheless, I hope advocates of this development are continuing to pursue schemes that might enable safe access to the Internet, such as for access to education and entertainment that could be as important as the right to read. I would like to hear of initiatives in this area, and wish them well.

chinese-internet-jail

Courtesy: http://marktanner.com/blog/the-internet-in-china-going-the-full-circle/

Innovations in the Technology of Higher Education: Where is the Social Research?

My colleagues and I organized a preconference for the 2014 International Communication Association on innovations in the technologies of higher education, focusing particularly on developments around massive online open courses and related innovations. It took place in Seattle, Washington, on the 21st of May 2014. I worked with Dr Kendall Guthrie of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Brian Loader, the Editor of iCS, and Director, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of York; and Sarah Porter and Rebecca Eynon of the OII. We were able to attract major figures in this area, such as Kevin Guthrie, President of Ithaka, but we were not able to unearth a significant set of high-quality research papers. Why?

Higher education is described as being in a time of crisis. In the US, tuition costs have been escalating beyond the cost of inflation for some years, students are building up significant debt, whilst completion rates are in decline. The higher education system is said to be creaking under the strain of additional scrutiny from government, funders, parents and students, yet is struggling to re-invent itself to reduce costs whilst improving quality and increasing flexibility for learners. In a Europe still feeling the consequences of the financial downturn, universities are struggling to retain their public service ethos when budgets are under huge pressure. Elsewhere in the world, many countries plan dramatic expansion to their higher education systems to fuel their growing economies, but they are being held up by lack of infrastructure and the increased intellectual capital that is needed.

At the same time, higher education is becoming a global business, and yet universities are not equipped to fully embrace the potential or address the risks that this might bring. One question is whether the development of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free online courses are being offered by a wide range of universities and opened to students with any academic background, will be an institutional response to this challenge. They are attracting millions of students from across the globe. To what extent though is the MOOC really revolutionary and disruptive, or is it being used cynically by the most elite institutions to further increase their brand power and assert their superiority, whilst the middle tier of institutions lose student numbers and academic credibility? Do MOOCs hold the potential to support the developing world in its academic ambitions, or are they just another example of neo-colonialism?

Whether MOOCs succeed or fail, or quickly evolve to become something else, they offer an opportunity for the higher education system to consider its future models and to test out new approaches to the way that it does its business – how it creates courses and course materials, how it teaches, how it supports students, how it accredits degrees, how it markets itself, how it covers its costs or makes a profit.

There is another element to the mass online provision of higher education courses. Hidden behind the welcoming and inclusive publicity materials, sophisticated data collection and analysis tools are being created that will gather and analyse information about each student as they move through the system, as they learn, interact with each other and with the materials. This is extremely valuable data and, for the first time, universities will have access to live data about the study habits of many millions of students, together with their personal profile. The potential to use this data for the good, to develop increasingly adaptable and personalised learning systems, is huge; but therein also lies the potential for mis-use and, in the words of the for profit providers of education, for ‘brand differentiation’. What are the implications of this innovation, for good and for bad – and are we giving enough due care and attention to the way that allow this data to be used?

My colleagues thought these developments raise a rich array of research questions. For example:

  1. Is higher education really in crisis or is it really a success story of a system that has adapted over time, and will survive the current challenges without major change?
  2. What are the major innovation challenges for the higher education system and how can they best be addressed?
  3. What do MOOCs mean for the future of higher education? Are they just a marketing device for elite institutions, or can they really be a force for the ‘democratisation of education’?
  4. Which other affordances will enable the higher education system to innovate more effectively?
  5. What is the potential for the use of learner analytics and big data approaches to large-scale online education, and are there threats hidden in this advances?

These are only indicative of a far wider range of topics that could be explored around these innovations. And yet, where is the systematic, empirical research needed to address these questions? While our preconference drew much interest and some excellent papers, we expected far more work in this area. It is not new. Brian Loader and I pulled together an edited book during the last round of interest in this area, entitled Digital Academe. By all of our indicators, less work is being done in academia on the social and institutional implications of the Internet in higher education than at the turn of the century? Are we too close to academia to systematically and critically look at our own institutions?

Bill Dutton with Sarah Porter