Metaverse explained for University Leaders:
 A simple guide to the immersive future (1/4)

University Leaders will doubtless come away from the latest round of late summer conferences with ideas about how to seize some real estate in Metaverse. With some caveats, I would suggest it is worthwhile that Universities start thinking now about how to harness the potential.


If you are looking to review institutional strategies in light of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch.


In four separate postings I want to outline:

  1. What the Metaverse is and is not.
  2. What is currently possible within the Metaverse
  3. Where are the challenges for universities in journeying into the Metaverse
  4. The opportunities likely to emerge over the next few years within the Metaverse.

What the Metaverse is and is not.

It is not yet here. The Metaverse is conceived as a series of intertwined digital experiences, from the presentation of personalised content based on physical proximity to the fully immersive virtual reality experience. The Metaverse is not a single ‘place’, it is rather an experience. It is envisaged as being an experience in which you, the individual, spend time between the virtual world and your flesh-and-blood existence.

Definitions are as varied as they are numerous as the label ‘Metaverse’ has some commercial cachet. Existing technologies, immersive gaming and virtual worlds have adopted the label of Metaverse. Even some commercial teleconferencing companies have chosen to use the label to describe their all-walls solutions.

Whilst several technologies play a part in building the Metaverse, including headsets, graphics platforms, blockchain encryption and so on, these individual technologies do not in themselves represent the Metaverse (Gillis, 2022). They are all pieces. They are yet to come together as a complete pattern. We are some years away from sufficiently integrated experiences that would warrant the label of Metaverse. The two experiences underpinned by this array of technologies are Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), both covered by the term Extended Reality (XR). AR could be defined as overlaying elements of digital representations on top of what we experience in the real world. AR is largely synonymous with Multiple Realities (MR). VR could be defined as the creation of immersive alternate reality. Big Think has a more detailed series of definitions (see here)

Definitions

Most commercial definitions of the Metaverse emphasise the connectivity between different digital experiences. They recognise already that no one wants to have to create multiple digital selves to participate in different experiences. How commercial realities will affect this aspiration is uncertain. Anyone who has signed up for multiple streaming services, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, etc, will tell you, it can be frustrating.

My working definition for Vice-Chancellors of the Metaverse is:

A series of experiences of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), grouped under the banner of extended reality (XR) facilitated by technologies (headsets, touch-sensitive haptic clothing, etc). Participation in the Metaverse allows individuals to create a digital version of themselves (digital-twin) and immerse themselves ‘inside’ the internet, as a representation of the digital world.

A shorter version is:

Metaverse is the intertwining of increasingly immersive digital spaces, experienced through XR technologies by you as your digital twin.

Implications

What this will look like in practice is open to question. At one extreme, a favourite film plot for the dystopia, individuals will spend most of their time ‘plugged in’ to a virtual ‘Matrix’, experiencing less and less human contact. More positive perceptions suggest a reality where working at home does not mean you cannot participate in person at a stand-up. Simply pop on the virtual reality headset and hyper-real representations of your team members appear in the space chosen for the meeting. Wearing a touch-sensitive technology suit (a haptic suit) would mean you can shake the hands of a new member and feel the pressure of their handshake. In its most utopian representation, it could be equated to the holodeck from the Star Trek franchise, a fully immersive hyper-real experience.

It is worth remembering that the concept of the Metaverse is not a new one. It has been around for at least 30 years. The term Metaverse is frequently attributed Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (1992). Star Trek’s own holodeck television representation began in 1988. Its conceptualisation within education was explored in 1995 when John Tiffin and Lalita Rajasingham described virtual learning experiences that were fully immersive in their work In Search of the Virtual Class (1995). An inspiring read, all the more so because it is now 26 years old.

The challenge for university leadership is to know whether to invest and get ahead of the wave, uncertain as to the regulatory frameworks that are likely to be imposed, lack of clarity about the implications for personal privacy, and doubt as to which of the big players will set the technological standards that will allow for interoperability.

In summary

The Metaverse IS coming, will be complex, untidy, multispeed, digitally divisive, and fragmented in its realisation and implementation. The Metaverse IS NOT a product or service you can buy for your students.

Next time: What is currently possible within the Metaverse


If you are looking to review institutional strategies in light of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch.


Gillis, M. (2022, August). Emerging Technologies Ushering the Life Sciences Industry into the Metaverse, according to Accenture Report [August 2022]. Newsroom Accenture. https://newsroom.accenture.com/news/emerging-technologies-ushering-the-life-sciences-industry-into-the-metaverse-according-to-accenture-report.htm
Stephenson, N. (1992). Snow crash (Reissued). Penguin Books.
Tiffin, J., & Rajasingham, L. (1995). In search of the virtual class: Education in an information society. Routledge.

In-Class Evaluation (Guidance for Educators)

Transcript:

Welcome all. Please feel free to share this with your colleagues, if you think they’ll find this of interest. 

I want to talk today about why it’s important that we listen to our students during our teaching practice. I think, first of all, just want to clarify the distinction between providing feedback to students and taking evaluative comments from students.

I think sometimes the language we use is a little bit loose and that complicates things. It also devalues the sense of feedback that students are actually receiving during the course of their learning experience. I think we should always label anything we provide to students for feedback on their learning or in their learning, as feedback, and then anything we receive from them is evaluation at an institutional level of national surveys and in our individual practice. So I want to talk about the way we elicit evaluation from our students. So obviously the easiest way of doing that is to read the room. You’re looking for individual responses. You may be need to avoid focusing on that one very negative, grumpy, miserable looking student and read the room on that basis. You don’t want to imply that that is the common feeling, but if you scan the room, you’ll be able to see whether or not there is a good degree of engagement. I think we need to distinguish between that kind of very informal in session evaluation and more formal mechanisms for evaluation.

And I want to talk about an, an in session evaluation, and then I’ll talk about end of course, or end of module evaluation, in just a moment. Want to focus in this conversation about the way in which we use in class evaluation and the model that I personally prefer, and it works best in a face-to-face environment if you are teaching a series of courses, but it also works in an online environment as well.

Something called small group instructional diagnostics, S.G.I.D., which is essentially a way of eliciting from the students, some evaluative comments on what they’re learning, how they’re learning in your classroom, the structure of the questions that you ask are very important, they’re more important than how you actually ask them. Formal SGID is actually you leaving the classroom and having a colleague coming and running a session with your students for 15, 20 minutes.

And that usually would happen around a third of the way through your course. This is to elicit whether or not the students are getting what you’re intending they get, whether they’re experiencing the learning as you intend it to be, to be experienced. There are a number of different ways that you can do this.

I think it works quite well to literally just hand out pieces of paper with four blocks on and ask them to fill out, put something in each of those blocks. But it’s really important the order in which the questions are asked. 

So you’re going to ask the students what’s happening on this course that is supporting their learning, not what am I doing to support your learning? What is supporting you in your learning? What is hindering you in your learning? What could I be doing differently to support you? And fourthly, what could you be doing differently to support your own learning? It’s very important that you end with them thinking about it as a reflective exercise.

Very often, students will say that last comment. What can I, what can you be doing for your own learning? Students will very often say, oh, I need to do the pre-reading or I need to prepare better for class or so, it encourages them to take some degree of ownership over their own. It’s really important that when you collate all of those responses that you do feed back.

So if you’re teaching face-to-face or online on a weekly or, or a regular basis, some scheduled basis, it’s really important that you then say to the students, I listened to you, you suggested this is what strengthening your learning collectively, I’m going to do more of that. This is what’s hindering, I’ll try and do less of that.

That gives students a sense of participation and a sense of ownership in the learning process. That’s a very important part of getting evaluation from students. 

The more formal aspect of end of course, or end of module evaluation. It’s usually structured around whatever institutional regional or national surveys are carried out.

Historically institutions used to just do their own end of course evaluations and tutors regarded that as almost a tick box exercise. It’s become much more significant in many countries to have institutional data that is then aggregated across the, the entire piece. And I think it’s important that you recognize that those questions are not necessarily questions that you have any direct control over, but it’s very important that you are aware of what those questions are because you can then signal answers to the students through the course of the course, through the course of the learning. 

So I think it’s really important to be aware of what the end of course evaluation looks like, which you’ll probably end up administering, although you may not be able to control the questions, but you do have complete control of the in-class evaluation that happens.

So please feel free to share this video with colleagues. If you think it’s interesting, like and follow. 

Be Well

‘Resilience’: the latest hyped up term being applied to education.

“If you managed to cover the absences of staff successfully last semester, are you maybe just over staffed?” If you managed to move all of your learning in a frantic fortnight with minimal support, well “how hard can it be, and do you really need all of that expensive support?”

There is a danger of being ‘successful’ in responding to a crisis. Senior management often don’t see the pain and sweat, the family disruption, the anxiety, and stress as it is happening. “Look how resilient you have all been in response to Covid-19, just carry on like that.”

Resilience is very in vogue at the moment. There are any number of workshops and seminars to empower you as an individual to recognise your own resilience. Some generously provide a ‘toolkit’. Others provide just a forum to share stories of resilience. I have been a participant in a number of these session in the last 12 months. To coin a Yogi-ism ‘It’s déjà vu all over again’. In the 2000s the same workshops were being run for us a managers using different buzz words, adaptability and self-awareness.

Adaptability requires a certain degree of intellectual flexibility, but above all it requires that an individual feel secure and trusted. Most individuals can be persuaded to try a different approach, provided if it turns out not to work, that they won’t be reproached. Most employees will find creative solutions, in collaboration with others, if they feel that their jobs don’t depend on them getting it right first time. Employers need to provide safe zones for failure. Employees need to understand their boundaries and self-imposed limitations. How far should you stretch outside of your current experiences, your ‘comfort zone’? This requires one to be self-aware. To know your limits and when it’s ok to step beyond them.

If senior management in tertiary institutions really want to ensure the resilience of their staff they need to empower even the most junior faculty or support person to make mistakes. To encourage them to be adaptable and responsive to changing circumstances. They must also ensure that staff are self-aware, willing to declare their own limitations and their own boundaries. Given the ability to recognise one’s own limits and being creative in adapting practices to stretch them is a practical definition of professional fulfilment.

I can cope with the evolution of language, it is one of the things I love about English. I recognise that running workshops encouraging staff to be adaptable and self-aware might sound a bit 2000s and language may need to be spiced up a bit. It just gets a bit tiresome to have old concepts repackaged and presented as something radically new. Personally I think it better to confront the underlying conditions in which ‘resilience’ is enabled.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

 

A new national vocational learning strategy. What could a Te Pūkenga Ako Strategy look like?

Te Pūkenga (https://tepūkenga.ac.nz), the centralised vocational tertiary organisation in New Zealand created in the last two years, represents an exciting opportunity to create a new way of conceiving of the learner experience.

A learning experience based on learner choice, learner contexts and personalised journeys.

 

Close up fingers holding map pinDuring a recent joint ODLAA webinar,  Dr Som Naidu  provocatively suggested there were no institutions truly embracing the concept of true flexibility for learners. As President of FLANZ, I think about this all the time. What is the possibility that Te Pūkenga can do something unique?

To design and support learning across all vocational disciplines is a challenge. Some learning must be experienced, witnessed in person, and evidenced through demonstration. While much of this traditionally conceived of as in-person learning can in fact be asynchronous, captured on video and dialogue facilitated alongside, some learning requires tactile demonstration and immediate feedback. There may be some learning can be ‘single-mode’, experience, just on-campus with nothing to take home or reflect on away from the campus, although I struggle to imagine what disciplines fall into that category. Some learning might be done entirely outside of a social context, with no interaction with others, other than the authoritative voice incorporated into a text.

Current models of learning are increasingly less satisfying to contemporary generations who navigate across dynamic and fluid knowledge platforms and devices as part of their daily lives.

There is no shortage of ‘content’. Most learning is infused across a learner’s life, thoughts invading their waking hours and possibly their dreams. Designing learning journeys that are adaptable to each individual’s context is challenging for those organisations who traditionally operate on manufacturing paradigms. This is true whether the model was the individual academic as solo artisan or the large design team following an industrial process. At best, both create an imagined ‘best scenario’, an optimal pathway, at worse they generate a single restricted route through their courseware. Their conception of ‘the right way to learn’.

However, just as the world of broadcasting has changed dramatically in the last 30 years from one-way communication to a world of multiple diverse channels, citizen journalism, and expert blogging (and vlogging), so finally vocational education, at least in New Zealand, has an opportunity to change the way it creates, shares and supports learners.

There is less need for the single authoritative voice and instead there is a clear need for learners to develop autonomous learning practices, judgement and discernment, the ability to evaluate the quality and usefulness of any learning artefact.

Learning should be co-created with learners, never delivered to them as a finished product. A good place for Te Pūkenga to start would be to ask, “how do I deliver the learning experience to the learner in their own context”. That doesn’t mean turning everything into Distance Learning. Rather, it requires curriculum, programme and course designers to think about the learners’ context and design learning (materials and support) that allow them to create their own personalised, or differentiated, learning pathway.

This means Te Pūkenga might be wise to focus on establishing solid programme and course designs and navigational aids rather than on learning content. I advocate a designing around situated learning principles and then curating a range of existing learning materials, drawn from individual practitioners, professional bodies and educational providers. Te Pūkenga could choose to structure its ako strategy as being as open as possible. Encouraging learners, given a map with key milestones (assessments) and  access to curated artefacts alongside that map. Generating original learning resources then becomes only necessary when there are identifiable gaps.

Learning artefacts from which Te Pūkenga constructs its pathways should also be created as Open Educational Resources (OER). This is because the development of these learning opportunities have already been funded off the back of individual taxation and it is immoral to ask individuals to pay for them twice. There is also a strong argument for learners to be enabled to update resources, to rcontextualise them, make them suitabe for their social and cultural context, and for the next generation of learners that follow them, subject to the same quality assurance processes.

These OER learning resources require a quality framework, based on peer review, and a suitable taxonomy to ensure individual artefacts are recoverable and reusable. Learning designers who commission OER, or identify existing OER, need to do so within strict guidelines. We cannot just assume that everyone’s PowerPoints are useful out of context, but the ideal situation would be to establish key concepts and supply learners with alternatives, from visual, auditory and written interpretations and explanations. These artefacts also clearly need a curated content management system, such as one based on OpenEQUELLA.

As with any strategy, it needs to differentiate between learners’ capabilities. At lower levels of the national qualifications framework where students may require more structure, pathways may be more limited. Limited but not restricted. The system clearly needs progression built in. The focus remains on empowering the learner to take ownership of their learner journey. Part of Te Pūkenga’s stated goal is to empower learners to become competent and confident digital citizens and lifelong learners. We don’t do that by giving them a neat little bundle of a course with all the answers included. At higher levels of learning, degree level and above, part of being a contemporary learner is being able to discern the validity of sources and interrogate them.

I also conceive this system of curated OER, sitting alongside the ‘course map’, a customised version of the Mahara ePortfolio with a range of support ‘plugins’ being available. Centralised OER resources, a single course map, with minimal milestones (beyond formal assessment), and options for different levels of in-person or virtual, synchronous or asynchronous, support should be part of the strategy. Across the entire national vocational space, Te Pūkenga should then focus on supporting individuals, their whānau (community), and/or professional context where appropriate.

Empowering learners to construct their own journey has to be the foundational principle.

As Dr Som Naidu suggested, to create such an institution requires a mind shift among current leadership. In Te Pūkenga that means everyone who works within any of its subsidiary organisations needs to let go of how things are currently constructed. It requires national quality assurance agencies, in this case NZQA, to think differently. It requires educational vision and leadership, and a seismic shift in the educational paradigm. It represents a revolution in practice, not an evolution.

 

This blog also appears on LinkedIn 15 November 2021
Photo by GeoJango Maps on Unsplash

How is leadership in higher education responding to changing notions of autonomy and accountability?

With the disruption to delivery models, timetables, and staff and student expectations in the last 18 months some institutions are struggling to maintain their faculty’s motivation and commitment. Some are wrestling with changing notions of autonomy and accountability.

With the disruption of delivery models, timetables, and staff and student expectations in the last 18 months, some institutions are struggling to maintain their faculty’s motivation and commitment. Universities are struggling to balance the need to provide their academic staff with more autonomy while ensuring they remain accountable.

Some academic staff still hark after the glorious days of academic self-management. The danger is that it doesn’t take much for that ‘autonomy’ to be abused; The elderly professor earning the salaries of three junior colleagues, applying fruitlessly for funds for arcane and irrelevant research, with no PhD supervision duties and no teaching, is not as rare as we like to imagine. Such individuals demonstrate to newer faculty that they can achieve career advancement by being selfish. This breeds a culture in which those with a relatively light workloads do their best to appear overburdened in order to defer requests from others to ‘pitch-in’. Most of us can identify such individuals.

The balance between academic autonomy and accountability defines the character of an institution from a faculty perspective. Autonomy and accountability are reflected in large part by how an organisation articulates leadership and management, two concepts that are frequently conflated inappropriately.

Leadership is about enabling with vision, providing clarity of purpose, illuminating the path ahead. This means communicating a clearly defined future state; a vision. Leadership does not require seniority. We often look to colleagues that we know to be skilled and confer the mantel of leadership on them. You can develop leadership skills, but usually within a specific context. A leader in one organisation at one time does not always adapt well to a different context. Some prove adaptable, but not all. Leadership is about empowering others to be more autonomous.

Management is quite different. Management is about implementing, maintaining, and curating structural processes within a given context. Everyone self-manages by this definition (calendar management, time-booking, etc). Beyond self-management, most organisations create tiers of managers to maintain policies and practices, to fulfil something externally imposed whatever legislative regulations or quality standards. Management is ensuring accountability.

We require leaders to trust the people they have responsibility for. Leaders need to provide supportive autonomy. Managers do not have to trust their people because they have tools to track them. They have instruments for accountability. It has been said that leaders make sure that the right things are done, managers make sure that things are done in the right way. 

Autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin. While some institutions have released faculty to get their own courses onto the institutional virtual learning environment, others had more structured approaches. In both cases, many have been unprepared for what changing models of delivery mean for accountability. Student complaints have surprised some institutions, mostly about the inaccessibility of faculty in the digital context. Students expectations need careful management. This does not need more systems to monitor faculty-student interactions, or appointing more people to watch people, and people to watch the watchers. It requires that new social-digital contracts be negotiated among all the participants and stakeholders in the University ecosystem.

Universities face challenges with some students and faculty struggling to adjust to the demands of balancing workload and practices of supporting flexible online provision. Going ‘back to normal’ for some will simply not be possible. This is a time when leaders and managers need to work together.

Managers need to hold the freeloader Professor and the ‘too busy’ junior colleague to account. Leaders need to define the future state of Universities in a language that faculty and students can make sense of. Together, they need to define, negotiate, explore and define new concepts of accountability and autonomy.

 

 

 

 

Photo by kerry rawlinson on Unsplash

University Learning and Teaching Strategies Post-Covid

One characteristic of a four to five year Learning and Teaching Strategy (LTS) is that it should require a complete re-write when it comes up for renewal. Given the inevitable pace of change, any remotely ambitious strategy is likely to have several ‘not achieved’ elements when it comes up for review. If you can sign-off on a five-year strategy as ‘complete’, you weren’t trying hard enough.

Someone has recently asked me to contribute to a 2021-2025 Learning and Teaching Strategy (LTS) for a University. I have drafted and contributed to many such documents over the last 25 years, so it’s always interesting to have a glimpse into other institutions. I realized one defining characteristic of the leadership of universities today is whether they have looked at their Learning and Teaching Strategy issued before January 2020 and have thought, “Emmm, maybe we need a rethink.”

Some leadership has a long-term mindset. They have recognised the enormous effort, commitment and dedication of the majority of their faculty to adjust their practices to Emergency Remote Teaching and are supporting those same faculty to retain and enhance their best practice into the future. Others have solely focussed on their balance-sheets, student-generated income, estate costs and spend time appealing for government support. The former are concerned with investing in their future state, the later worrying about this year’s numbers.

This particular LTS is ambitious; for them. The ability for faculty to continue to support their learners regardless of whether they work remotely, across time zones, from anywhere in the world. A move away entirely from end-of-course summative assessments and exams, towards student-paced portfolio assessment regardless of the discipline. Developing practical learning experiences that can be undertaken at home, or at other institutions and work-places. There are some major structural changes that will be needed to enable these learning practices to take root. The underlying philosophy is that the contemporary University student no longer has the luxury of dedicating their entire being to live and study at University for three years. They need flexibility.

Elements within this particular 2021-2025 Learning and Teaching Strategy will not be achieved. Sometimes this is because ambitions require changes to the digital ecosystem beyond institutional control, or they are subject to the vagaries of the shifting political landscape. Given the intransigence that sometimes appears embedded in the sector, some ambitions may just require too much of people. Nonetheless, it has been satisfying to see leadership willing to embark on a strategy, knowing the best that can be hoped for is ‘partially achieved’. Which from my perspective will be an unmitigated success.

Dr Simon Paul Atkinson (PFHEA)
Learning Strategist //www.sijen.com

Photo by Verschoren Maurits from Pexels

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