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7 April 2014 / Erik Duval

One down – or how I almost disappeared completely in less than a month ;-)

Many thanks, for the support – here and elsewhere after my earlier message… I’m really a bit overwhelmed by all the nice words and feel very privileged by your Facebook comments, tweets, blog comments, emails, paper messages, etc. Keep them coming… MUCH appreciated! You can’t begin to understand how much a nice word can do at a difficult moment…

Many of you mentioned that you were a bit uneasy about what to do. Do you ‘like’ a message about someone having a chemo session? Do you ‘favourite’ a tweet about that topic? Don’t worry, I’m figuring this out too… And, again, every time I get a ping from one of you, I feel a bit stronger. Thanks.

I’ve also learned that some of you are fighting your own battles. Know that many think of you too. I can’t fight for you. As someone wrote to me: ‘we all must fight our own battles’. But I wish you strength. And support when you feel weak. Let me know if I can help.

On a more practical level, last week started good: turns out my heart is strong – in a literal sense… That means I can get the full treatment. I hope it will be true in a more metaphorical sense too. And then I had the first chemo session last Thursday. Started well. I sent a few people a message on the theme of ‘piece of cake’. Not smart ;-)

The chemo came back with a bit of a vengeance, and made me feel like a Very Completely Squeezed Lemon by Friday. A Really Very Completely Squeezed Lemon. The net result is that I needed to be hospitalised on Saturday morning because of dehydration. Was kind of necessary: with the speed I was loosing weight, I would have disappeared completely before the end of the month!

Anyway, things are back under control, or so I hope and I left the hospital two hours ago… I’m in good spirits and enjoying a bit of work. Am also enjoying some music – a bit of Wagner or Bach doesn’t hurt anybody…

In any case, that’s one chemo session down. One battle won.

31 March 2014 / Erik Duval

Not so great news…

Sit down, take a deep breath… This is a bit of a personal message…

I’ve had a series of medical checks over the past few weeks. A few days ago, I was diagnosed with a rare kind of lymphoma. (Yup, I always want to be a special case…) T-cell non Hodgkin NOS, if you’re into that kind of detail. This means that I will undergo somewhat intensive chemotherapy the next 6 months. We’re still going to do a few more tests and I will probably start treatment in a few days from now.

It’s a bit unclear how my body will react, but I do want to stay in the loop and may be able to contribute here and there… Actually, I may end up with more free time than before. I’ll maybe do a bit more writing. I will have to avoid face-to-face time with most of you though, as my resistance against infections will be very low. But, you know, you can leave a comment here. Chat, google hangouts and Skype can do wonders these days. Email works too, I’ve been told.

Seriously, it’s nice to receive a bit of support. I’ve been lucky to receive lots of support over the past two weeks. Send me some more – I appreciate that. And maybe send a message to someone less lucky than I am. She’ll appreciate that too. I know.

Two quick additional things:

1) There is no need to keep this a secret. (I guess blogging about it wouldn’t be such a great idea if I wanted to keep this a secret anyway.) In as far as possible, I prefer to break the news myself. But if people ask about me, then feel free to let them know. Hey, you know I’m an open kind of guy…

2) I know this puts you in a bit of an awkward situation: you will wonder whether you should mention it to me or not, whether to send a message or not, etc. Here’s the rule: you send, ask, or tell me whatever you want to send, ask or tell me. If I’m not in the mood or whatever, I’ll tell you. If I don’t react, then don’t take it personally: I may be a bit busy with Getting Better.

To tell you the truth, I’ll have to figure out how to deal with this as we go. This is a bit new for me too ;-)

In conclusion: take a moment this evening to think about Stuff. Enjoy a glass of something. Spend some time with Someone Special… And then I hope we can talk about it a bit later, when I’m Fully Recovered?

And to my students, as I tweeted a few hours ago: sorry for dropping bit of a bomb on you with this message. Take care: you’re a nice group of students! Impress me with your work!

3 February 2014 / Erik Duval

George on “The attack on our higher education system — and why we should welcome it”…

Good Stuff, as usual, from George, this time on the TED blog

The part that resonates most with me:

To date, higher education has largely failed to learn the lessons of participatory culture, distributed and fragmented value systems and networked learning. MOOCs have forced a serious assessment of the idea of a university and how education should be related to and supportive of the society in which it exists.

14 January 2014 / Erik Duval

Mcdonaldisation? Or using scale to improve learning…

Some things do not scale well. I know quite a few small restaurants that serve Great Food in a lovely setting (try this one), but it seems like all large-scale chains resemble McDonalds. Or think clothes – I don’t think Dries Van Noten can scale to H&M dimensions without degradation?

Much of the critique agains technology in learning in general, and MOOCs in particular, assumes that scaling up education or learning will have the same effect: that lovely professor lecture with intensive student interaction will be replaced by a US dominated one-size-fits-all superficial talking head. The Mcdonalidisation of higher education…

An obvious counter argument is that the ‘lovely professor lecture with intensive student interaction’ is mostly a fiction anyway: many lectures are formal going-through-the-motions events in front of already large groups of students who rarely interact beyond the occasional question about ‘do we need to know this for the exam?’.

But there is another point which I find much more intriguing. Some things actually improve as they scale up. A search engine like Google would probably not work very well if there were only a few hundred documents on the Web. An encyclopedia like Wikipedia would not be similar in quality to Encyclopedia Brittanica if there were only four of us who contribute to it. The Long Tail would not be very long without scale. Amazon can recommend books because of its scale. Etc. (I don’t think we actually really understand very well when scale helps, how and why – Barabasi is one researcher who studies this… Fascinating!)

So, I’m really interested to hear about efforts that try to leverage scale in MOOCs, that use scale as an opportunity, rather than work around it as a problem… Maybe peer and self assessment work better at massive scale (see this recent paper)? No doubt, recommending content or activities will work better in large-scale deployments? Visualisation of learning analytics in dashboard applications for learners or teachers will also make more sense (help users to make more sense) at scale? Would love to hear about other ways people try to leverage scale for learning…

18 December 2013 / Erik Duval

Commodification? Unbundling?

Yesterday, we had a really nice discussion with a small EC delegation about the future of ‘the university’. (You know who you are: thanks – you gave me food for thought. That’s a precious gift.)

Apparently, some people are rather worried by the risk of ‘commodification‘. I’ve added quotes and a link to the wikipedia article, because I wasn’t really sure what the word means. Apparently, wikipedia is itself an illustration of the commodification of knowledge…

Trying to articulate in terms that I understand better what I think is the real challenge for universities, I used the notion of ‘unbundling‘. A long time ago, universities offered a full package and had almost a monopoly as a provider of that package. Nowadays, many, if not all, of the parts of that package are also offered by alternative providers:

  • professors used to author content: many still do, but there is such an abundance of high quality content (OER and other) that I don’t understand why we would still focus on this as a core aspect;
  • professors used to deliver content, for instance by lecturing: many still do, but the effectiveness of doing this is very questionable, there are many alternatives now and delivery of content is challenged by the ‘flipped classroom’ and other alternative models;
  • universities used to support students in the learning process: well, some did and some still do, but spontaneous or organised communities of learning are moving on-line;
  • professors used to take exams in order to validate that students had learned: well, this is certainly still the norm, but I have argued before that exams were intended as a means and have now become a goal for students which actually impedes learning – and, in any case, automated or peer grading, as well as learning analytics provide rather attractive alternatives that scale much better;
  • universities had the monopoly of accreditation through diplomas: again, this is still largely the case, but also under pressure through the use of badges and alliances between alternative providers of learning and corporations.

All in all, through this process of unbundling, the authority of the university as a learning institution is challenged at a deep level. Being the optimist that I am, I think this is A Good Thing: either the universities can make clear what value they add by bundling these different services or they will become less and less relevant, as specialised providers of only one or other service will be more effective.

Personally, I am not completely sure what exactly the added value of the university is. A ‘place for learning’ sounds nice, but you could also be a place for learning and do so by integrating services from elsewhere? If you would invent the university now, would it look anything like universities as we know them?

What do you think? Did I miss important services that the are also part of the university ‘bundle’? Do you have ideas about the added value of the university?

24 October 2013 / Erik Duval

Augmentation, not Replacement…

At the EADTU conference in wonderful Paris, France, MOOC’s are of course the dominant topic. And yes, of course, this crowd of “Distance Teaching Universities” feels a bit uncomfortable about newcomers that, not hindered by any knowledge of the domain, suddenly attract the press attention and the students, as well as the euros and dollars, in what was for decades their turf…

So, I was very happy to try and do a ‘mooc free’ talk, on learning analytics. The official title of my talk was “The Transformation of Higher Education and the role of Learning Analytics” – not a title I could have come up with. Although that title did include the proper amount of grandeur for a talk at the Sorbonne, it made me a bit uncomfortable, as I don’t know how to transform Higher Education. If I’ve learned anything over the past 2 decades, it is that Higher Education is remarkably resilient to any kind of deep change…

In my talk, I focused a bit on what I consider to be the two main streams of activities in learning analytics:

  • educational data mining tries to build algorithms that can deduce meaning from data;
  • visual analytics tries to build applications that help people to understand the data.

Our work is very much in the second stream. Not because I would think that data mining techniques will not work. In fact, I think they will work – and are already beginning to work quite well. And I do acknowledge that they could help to address scalability of education – an issue that Diana Laurillard focused on in her talk: if we can automate teachers, then at least we can scale teaching and meet the increasing demand.

However, I personally put myself much more in the tradition of Doug Engelbart, and try to focus on ‘augmenting the human intellect’, rather than replacing it. With my team, we try to build tools and technologies that help teachers and students to look at the traces of their own activities (and those of their peers) in order to steer their efforts in a more informed way. The end result should be teachers and students that become better in and more confident about making their own decisions. I think that is what we need, not students who are conditioned to follow the directions from a piece of software…

22 August 2013 / Erik Duval

Waarom ik niet teken…

(In Dutch, as it relates to a public discussion about ‘publish or perish’ that has hit the press here recently.)

Neen, ik ga de petitie tegen de publicatiedruk niet tekenen…

Ik heb veel sympathie voor de druk die jonge academici ervaren. Hard werken. Geen zekerheid dat je je doctoraat behaalt. Of dat je een post-doc positie kan vinden. Of dat je daarna een loopbaan kan uitbouwen. Of waar je dat dan zou kunnen.

Ik ben natuurlijk erg oud nu, en heb geen benoeming of bevordering meer nodig. Maar om een of andere reden heb ik daar ook vroeger nooit van wakker gelegen. Niet omdat ik zeker was dat het wel ging lukken. Maar omdat ik het werk leuk vond en er van uit ging dat gaandeweg wel zou duidelijk worden wat kon. Of niet. Misschien sta ik wat lichter in het leven dan veel van mijn jongere collega’s…

Maar ik heb dus wel sympathie voor de druk die velen wel ervaren.

Dat lijkt me echter geen reden om te tekenen: die druk ontstaat niet omdat ik verplicht word om een aantal publicaties te halen. Die druk heeft alles te maken met het feit dat we allemaal met elkaar concurreren. Ik ervaar dat meer als een soort sport: je wil sneller, hoger, verder. Of misschien meer nog als een ploegsport: je wil samen met anderen sneller, hoger, verder. En neen, het is nooit snel genoeg, hoog genoeg, of ver genoeg. Alles kan beter. Het is vooral competitie met jezelf. Ik geniet van dat spel. Zoals, denk ik, topsporters genieten van hun sport.

(En neen, niet iedereen moet aan topsport te doen. Dat is waarschijnlijk niet eens gezond. Maar we begrijpen wel allemaal dat alleen de besten meedoen aan de Olympische Spelen. En dat daar ook geluk mee gemoeid is. En dat zelfs diegenen die super snel lopen niet eens mogen deelnemen als er een paar zijn die nog sneller lopen.)

Het gebruik van die gegevens over publicaties wordt in de discussie ook vaak verkeerd voorgesteld. Ik zit geregeld in benoemingscommissies om professoren te benoemen. Overigens is de concurrentie vaak veel groter dan in de pers wordt gesuggereerd: 40 tot 70 kandidaten voor één positie is niet ongebruikelijk. Maar er wordt niet louter geteld hoeveel publicaties of citaties een kandidaat heeft. Er wordt naar veel meer gekeken, inclusief het soort van onderzoek dat iemand verricht heeft, waar, met wie, wat hij of zij wil doen als ze benoemd wordt, of kinderen de uitbouw van de loopbaan hebben beïnvloed, enz. Kandidaten kunnen omstandig uitleggen waarom ze zichzelf geschikt achten voor die job. Enz. Het gaat echt wel om meer dan louter publicaties tellen – anders hoeven die commissies ook geen lange beraadslagingen meer te doen, natuurlijk…

De petitie wil meer aandacht voor kwaliteit: daar kan niemand tegen zijn natuurlijk. Maar dan moeten we ook afspreken hoe we die kwaliteit willen meten. De basisidee van het huidige systeem is dat we kwaliteit valideren door het gepresteerde werk door onze collega’s te laten beoordelen. Dat is de idee van ‘peer review’. En door op te volgen hoe vaak onze collega’s verwijzen naar ons werk wanneer ze hun eigen resultaten publiceren. Daarom dat we naast publicaties ook citaties bekijken. Mij lijkt dat redelijk. En sterk te verkiezen boven het vroegere systeem waarin alles binnenskamers werd bedisseld. Het zou gerust veel transparanter mogen – de idee van open science, die ik zeer genegen ben. Maar ik zie niet direct een reëel alternatief?

Overigens ben ik het er wel mee eens dat de administratieve druk te groot is. Dat is blijkbaar niet alleen in de academische wereld zo…

Zo, nu ga ik terug aan mijn publicaties werken ;-)

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