Predatory Conferences. Caveat Empor.

Is this a dodgy conference?

Large conferences deal in ideas, create space to explore new notions, offer chances to experience serendipitous encounters and expose you to new products and services. I’m all for dialogue, connections and the opportunity to meet and listen to experts, network with colleagues and chat to vendors. However, some of these events are predatory in nature, do not meet their stated intentions, have profit as their major motivation and ultimately fleece the interested attendee that does not know better.

You may to have been invited to an impressive and relevant conference, filled with well-known national and international speakers addressing a range of pertinent topics. I’ve had numerous invitations each year. This rash of academic sounding conferences at expensive conference venues purport to assist and enable individuals and organisations connect to expertise and opinions in a particular field. Organizers, with little or no connection to academia or the particular industry , spam inboxes with invitations to attend the event. Office phones ring regularly with calls from “business development executives” enquiring whether we will be attending this occasion. Well meaning friends and colleagues kindly forward electronic brochures advertising a slew of plausibly entitled conference events.

I’ve been approached by such conference organisers, usually at very short notice, to speak at the aforementioned events. The ego in me is flattered by the invitation. This seems a “good deal”. The extrovert in me thrives in the “feel good” vibe, generated when similarly minded professionals gather together and connect. I’m not averse to trading my time and experience for a day in comfort, spontaneous interactions, good meals, and the opportunity to share tacit knowledge with other who I know and trust in my field.

The “good deal” offered by a good conference offers is being sullied by predator conference companies. They pose as experts, pretending to empower attendees. In reality they are akin to vultures, preying on the many that want to know more, but don’t know who to turn to, what questions to ask or know how to frame the unknowns. These conference companies have no recognised expertise and no mandate from an academic or professional body to run such a conference.

Within my field (education technology) I’ve developed at checklist to measure just how likely the conference is a predatory event. The 10 questions are not a blanket rule. Some events are legitimate and well-arranged events organised by people with a background in higher education and learning technology. I am grateful for their hard work. Conference attendees do need to be aware. There are a range of “dodgy” and opportunistic operators out there. Don’t feed their growth.

  1. Is there a conference chair? What connections do they have to academia, the ICT industry or education technology?  
  2. Are the listed speakers reputable experts. Check their profile on Twitter and use to see if their followers are real or fake.  
  3. Do the advertised speakers actually appear on the programme? Contact a few and ask them whether they know about the event.  
  4. If this is the 3rd, 4th or 5th event, use Google to locate previous years conference brochure. Does the programme from the previous year have the same speakers talking about the same topics?  
  5. Does the PDF attached to the email have the initials or name of the sales team member who contacted you?  
  6. Check on LinkedIn. Does the LinkedIn profile of the person sending out the conference invite have any connections to the field they are promoting? 
  7. Does the organisation associated with the conference have a website and does the website mention the conference? 
  8. Is the layout and design of the programme a little patchy, amateur or contradictory. Google the first paragraph. Has text been plagiarised? 
  9.  What indexing and storage service does the conference offer for the previous year’s presentations?  
  10. Finally, are the terms and conditions associated with the conference a little prejudicial?
    • Does the organiser reserves the right to change the venue?
    • Does the organiser reserves the right to change speaker/facilitator? 
    • Does the organiser reserves the right to change program content? 
    • Does the organiser offer refunds, or do they offer a credit voucher? 
    • Is the conference fee realistic? Do you believe that you will get value for your money? 

For ed techies (and other professionals), if you are going to attend a conference, then they need to be arranged by people within the field, addressed by folk who have a more critical/informed position on the subject and the results of the presentations shared freely afterwards with those who were not able to make it. Predatory conferences do not deliver the value they promise. They do not meet their stated intentions, have profit as their major motivation and ultimately fleece the interested attendee that does not know better. The benefits of attending  (or agreeing to speak) these events are limited. 

#DigitalInclusion & #FeesMustFall


Internet access does not guarantee Digital Inclusion

E-learning has been repeatedly invoked by certain friends, colleagues and practitioners as a “solution” to the #feesmustfall campus shut down. The logic, to them, is clear. If students can’t attend lectures on campus, then let’s capture the content with a video recorder or webcam and then post them onto YouTube or the LMS. Students will then be able to watch the lectures using their cell phone, tablet or laptop (if they have one). Putting classes online (according to this line of reasoning) will allow students an alternate route to progress with their studies.

I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable with this argument. While lecturers are to be commended being proactive and offering alternate routes to teaching and learning materials, creating “Plan B” and expecting students, without the means, to access rich learning resources on the web, simply re-enforces and perpetuates certain students sense of inequity.

Initiating “Plan B” is probably not intended to provoke a reaction among students  But before putting your videos online, get to know the access constraints facing your students. Remember, you (and I) are on the connected side of the digital divide. With our uncapped WiFi in our homes, our coffices with cappuccinos and contract cell phones with data plans, video seems like an obvious solution. Students with the combination of academic ability and “wealthy” parents will probably also be able to afford access to online course materials. But not all students are on the connected side of the digital divide. For capable students that come from homes where loans have been taken and income is already stretched, only putting lectures online in a video format will not necessarily assist, it simply creates another barrier to learning.

Data is expensive for the pay-as-you-go student.  Try it yourself. Buy a pre-paid data bundle and use it instead of your contract data or home Wi-Fi. See how much you’ve got left of your bundle the next day. Putting work online only benefits those that have the money to pay for access. Yes, there are many ways to connect. And students that have the ingenuity and gumption to make use of these different routes are to be commended. Lectures that want to reach out and use online to teach also deserve recognition. However, expecting stressed and cash strapped students to follow your Plan B may unintentionally reinforce the current inequalities that students experience daily, add another financial burden when they are cash strapped and further alienate them from the inclusive learning and teaching culture that academics intend to create.

Plan B, i.e. only putting resources on the web, without considering the costs that students have to bear, is not going to address the various issues that have been highlighted by the #feesmustfall movement. Creating a digitally inclusive learning environment requires that we go beyond simply using videos as a replacement for lectures.

Can tech innovations save education in S.A.?

Education & Innovation

Education & Innovation

I’m going to be facilitating a conversation today (Wed 24 August) at LeaderEx about education and innovation. Will be asking questions about high tech tools and whether they are the solution to South Africa’s education crisis. Will be chatting to Warren Hero, Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, Enoch Thango, Deputy Principal of Sunward Park High & Mfanelo Ntsobi, Chief Director: School Support, Gauteng Department of Education (our panelists).

Our panel will also discuss the pros and cons of implementing a #paperlessclassroom.

You can expect to hear opinions about the following.
What does it mean to teach and learn is this digital age?
What are some of the threads that will weave themselves into classrooms of the future?
Why do we want to innovate with education technology?
Is ed tech having the impact on education that we hoped for?
How do we go about scaling up successful innovations?

Interested? See you at Leaderex Conference at Sandton Convention Centre at 14h30 – 15h30.

New mobile pathways to children’s stories

"Mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to text"

“Mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to text”

In Sub Saharan Africa, progress has been made in pursuing the goal of universal Primary Education. However, the reading literacy levels of African children are far from adequate. A key obstacle to learning to read is the shortage of appropriate stories for early reading in languages familiar to the young African child.

UNESCO’s research has found that mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to literacy for children. Mobile devices offer new opportunities to access text for literacy development. Especially in Sub Saharan Africa, where millions of people do not have access to text, but do own a mobile phone

While young children do not own phones, their parents or caregivers have the opportunity to use mobile phones to read books and stories. Together with the Goethe Institut and local librarians, we are going to explore how librarians can assist their patrons to confidently harness the power of their own mobile phones and use their devices to read stories to children.

#Feesmustfall and differing digital capabilities

#FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated how digital networks can be utilised to disrupt

#FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated how digital networks can be utilised to disrupt

The past two weeks of #FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated how digital networks can be utilized to disrupt higher education here in South Africa. While it may be premature to compare this movement to the Arab Spring, it is quite clear that students, with their data and cell phones, are sufficiently capable to use digital media to mobilise other students, university management and government to pay attention to their demands.

#FeesMustFall has also exposed the different digital capabilities across the Higher Education spectrum. Student’s capacity to make use of digital media to amplify and enable their campaign stand in stark contrast with parliamentarians and higher education execs relative silence within the same medium. Over the last two weeks students, executives and politicians have repeatedly missed opportunities for communication and engagement via web 2.0 technologies and social media. Despite VCs and politicos having access to traditional and new media, communication units and infrastructure, they have not demonstrated that they are able to take advantage of these alternative modalities to connect and engage with students.

If ed techies are to learn and respond to this communication gap between students and executives, then we need recognize this as a digital capability issue, offer leadership and act. Here’s a golden opportunity to promote the use of learning technologies to address many of the any educational issues raised by students. But don’t ask Radio, TV or MOOCS to replicate one size-fits-all, undifferentiated and restricted 20th-century model of higher education in an electronic form. Ed techies need to be part of a conversation envisaging a future where ICT’s are able to offer a flexible and accessible education that can be tailored and customised for each individual.

James Hilton suggests that if we don’t want to miss the opportunity to redefine education for a world in which access to information, networks, and computation is ubiquitous, then we need to do the following (my paraphrase).

  • Embrace the duality of ICT. Digital is both a part of the infrastructure and a strategic asset. At present ICT is seen as a part of the infrastructure. This services delivered on this infrastructure are important, but administration and management is not its only function. ICT is also an innovation platform. The two are not competing with each other. They’re complementary roles.
  • Allow ICT to play an enabling role. We accept that universities are designed to foster innovation, to create an environment in which people research, share ideas and data and come up with something new. The role that communication technologies, computation, and networks play in enabling this innovation should be used to further the teaching and learning mission of a university.
  • Bring back the joy. There was a time when ICT was an enabling force on campus. This additional empowerment brought joy to many academic and student. It would be very easy to turn off the WiFi, restrict device usage and forget the joy associated with the network and become driven by fear. We need to retreat from the fear and reclaim the joy of learning and playing with ICT.

As our interactions between each other, what we are learning and what we are doing become more and more mediated by networks, we have the opportunity to build a global learning laboratory. Higher Education needs to take be invited to be part of this global learning laboratory and combine it with the scholarship of teaching and learning to begin looking for evidence-based practices about what works and what doesn’t work.

ICT can be used to enable an accessible and flexible education. Ed techies need to reclaim this audacious vision and promote a digitally capabilities right across campus, where all are encouraged and enabled to use ICT  to enhance and innovative and not only manage and control. If we are going to respond appropriately to #FeesMustFall, then we need to use this opportunity to rethink about our current use of ICT.

Facilitating Online

Facilitating Online image

Welcome to Facilitating Online

I’ve signed up for a five week Facilitating Online course run by Emerge Africa. Here’s why I’ve joined.

I’ve met some fabulous facilitators in a range of organisational settings. From young adults informally working alongside teens on an outdoor youth camps to expensive organisational development experts hired in by senior managers to in to assist run an important strategic planning event. These facilitators have been confident, wise, open, innovative, real and honest. They are inspiring people and I’ve enjoyed their company and admired their ability to work with others, and assist members of the various groups (whether they be youth or executives).

I also work online. I have a Masters in Computer Assisted Education and a 20 year track record in e-learning and I’ve worked with digital materials development (print, radio, multi-media, new media and electronic platforms, graphic design, HTML, audio, video, etc.) within a range of educational and developmental settings. I have hands-on expertise with learning design (lectures, courses, workshops and seminars), presentation and facilitation skills and significant project leadership.

So…I’m a fan of facilitation and a fairly seasoned online practitioner. But if I am entirely honest with myself, I am not yet able to integrate the two concepts – Facilitating and Online – and make them complement each other in a way that enhances the intended objectives. Regularly bridging this divide between facilitation and online is one of the reasons that I have an interest in the course – Facilitating Online.
During the course I expect to be introduced to

  • The guiding ideas behind online facilitation
  • Theories, methods and tools for the online facilitator
  • Exposed to how online facilitators steward and use the infrastructures available.

Ultimately, within any course, we are judged on the quality of our results. The problem comes with knowing when and how to measure quality. You don’t pull up a carrot to see how they are growing. Those facilitators that I mentioned earlier on that I admired, were capable of assisting a group articulate what they want and take steps towards those objectives. These are quantifiable results and I hope that with time and opportunity, I will also be able to claim such quantifiable results. Learning together as an organisation offers opportunities for a range of results that are not quantifiable to emerge. These results include innovativeness, openness, confidence, authenticity, care for the other. Those facilitators that I mentioned earlier on that I admired were also people that lived these qualities and these only became apparent only as we worked together. I hope that I and others on the course participate in the online facilitation experience, that the course will also offer opportunities for these non quantifiable qualities to emerge.

Facilitating Online image

Welcome to Facilitating Online

An edugroan about our eduroam


KIMComms announces eduroam

Eduroam (education roaming), the secure world-wide roaming access service developed for the international research and education community, made my life in Boston such a breeze. Normally navigating appointments and offices on an unfamiliar campus is challenge but when on MIT & Harvard’s grounds, blanket wireless coverage allowed me, a South African visitor, to find my way around, check email and remain in touch with home, simply by opening my iPad and connecting once to their service.

In October 2013, I was very pleased when CNS announced that Wits had officially joined Eduroam. I’d noticed Eduroam occasionally appear as a wireless option and the October announcement confirmed that Eduroam was officially here. Occasionally eLSI hosts a guest on campus and usually they request Internet Access. Normally arranging guest access is a logistical mission that requires the user to almost sign their life way. With the availability of Eduroam, I thought we had passed into a new era of internet accessibility .

Sadly, as the year passed, I discovered that my optimism was misplaced. The Wits installation of this service was either not available or working, both for Wits staff and our academic guests. Every time I referred guests to Eduroam, the service did not work. Repeatedly I highlighted this problem to CNS when we had from visitors from the University of Groninen, UCT and Rhodes. Each time my query was ticketed, but assurance was given that the service was fine and the problem lay with the other universities authentication.

The ability to access WiFi seamlessly across multiple campus networks without a manual login is a massive plus

  • Wits does not have to manages or provision guest accounts
  • Visitors from participating institution only use their institutional credentials
  • Wits users can travel to other Eduroam institutions and gain seamless access to Guest WiFi

One of the first things I do when arriving on a campus is to join the internet, courtesy of freely available Wi-Fi. I’m not a unique in this behaviour. More than 42% of mobile-phone traffic, and over 90% of tablet traffic travels by Wi-Fi Sadly, we have not got this service right at Wits yet and we cannot offer a seamless internet access experience.

Connected Course

Connected Courses

Connected Courses

Spent Friday afternoon listening to Jim Click Groom, Alan Link Levine and Howard Embed Rhinegold introduce Connected Courses in a session entitled Pre-course: Orientation: Registration & Setting up your Network.

I only listened for the first half an hour but “Click”, “Link” and “Embed”  did have some good points about online learning. These were the 3 main takeaways for me

  • What is a connected course? A connected course is not just one central broadcast system, but a space that you own, where you have the tools to create and manage your own space.
  • What’s presence?  Presence is the trust that you establish when you are teaching online. It’s about being real and accessible.
  • Why your own domain?: There’s a difference between renting an apartment and owning your own flat. Once you have your own space, instead of simply occupying an area that you pay a landlord for, then its yours and a greater part of your identity because you can do anything with it decorate it at your hearts content.

What I am particularly excited about is the obvious assumption that participants in Connected Courses are still getting their ideas around hosting, blogs, RSS and distributed learning. There’s always a danger, when running an online course, that we assume expertise in the technologies central to the course. This is a real blind spot I suffer from, and I forget that many have not yet had the opportunity to become familiar with concepts we ed techies take for granted. Kudos to Connected Courses for offering an opportunity to get on top of RSS, self hosting, publishing platforms and other ideas. Now people who are participating in this course have a scaffolded opportunity to start playing in this space.

Putting the laptop / tablet debate before the horse

tablets vs laptops

tablets vs laptops

The debate between tablets (iPads and others) or laptops is a discussion that gets to the heart of the intention to use ICT. But before we re-launch the great laptop vs tablet debate, and cost out the budget required for equipping student with tablets or laptops, a department that wants portable computing devices for students should stop quibbling about the merits of each device and  start with clearly articulating how academics and students intend to use this device in their context. I’ve made an attempt to pen a few questions to assist a department ascertain what experience they envisage when their students and staff use devices.

In a teaching and learning context,  portable computing devices should be used for:

  1. Exercises and practise
  2. Informational dissemination and retrieval
  3. Class administration and management
  4. Collaborative work amongst students
  5. Data entry, storage and processing
  6. Initiate a range of engagement opportunities designed to support learning intentions
  7. Promote autonomous learning
  8. None of the above

Portable computing devices, in teaching and learning, positively impacts on:

  1. Student motivation
  2. Student achievement
  3. Students’ higher order thinking skills
  4. Student’s competence in 21st century skills
  5. None of the above

Students will be expected to access the following content on their own  portable computing device:

  1. Professionally marked up content
  2. Content that has been purchased from a commercial publisher
  3. Content supplied by the department
  4. Content that has been authored by peers
  5. Content that is licensed as an Open Educational Resource

Our department envisages academics leveraging these portable devices to:

  1. Offer their students access to course related information, readings & resources
  2. Offer opportunities to deliver multimedia
  3. Offer opportunities to use web 2.0 tools for learning activities (blogs, portfolios, OERs)
  4. Offer opportunities to practice blended learning

In the past two years, academics in our department have undertaken professional development in the following:

  1. Introductory courses on commonly used software or applications provided by general trainers
  2. Advanced courses on particular software or applications provided by specialists
  3. Courses that require use of multimedia
  4. Equipment-specific training
  5. Courses that focus on the pedagogical use of ICT in teaching and learning
  6. Subject-specific training on learning applications
  7. Participation in communities of practice about the use of ICT for learning and teaching
  8. Other professional development opportunities related to ICT

It’s not about the device in your hand — it’s about the experience that the technology can provide. The job of the department is to articulate the vision that goes along with the technology. I’m not talking about rephrasing the universities mission statement and describing how devices can fit this vision. A well-articulated statement needs to make the intention behind the purchase of the device clear and describes how technology can help achieve this objective. The focus should not be on the tablet or laptop but what the device does for a student. Stakeholders within departments need to construct a detailed story of their future success with the device and how this choice will define what their department will look like over the next few years.

Are we ready for Blended Learning?

Blended Learning

Blended Learning

Technologies for teaching and learning are a part of the current and proposed Teaching and Learning plan at Wits. If Wits is indeed going to be tech savvy, going beyond EdTech “solutionism”  and explore how a range of different modes for course provision can best be used, then it is appropriate that a range of campus stakeholders plot out how these two separate modes of teaching and learning (traditional face-to-face learning systems and distributed learning systems) should be combined.
When considering embedding technology, Wits has made progress in the following areas:

  • technology infrastructure
  • integrating the learning management systems with other learning technologies
  • help and support
  • instructional design
  • professional development
  • media production services

CNS is developing a campus infrastructure that can support the embedding of technology into teaching and learning. A wireless network, broadband and communication platforms offer teachers who want to incorporate digital technologies a backbone to support learning activities. Course and student management tools such as Sakai have been deployed and the tools therein are being used in a rudimentary fashion to communicate and disseminate information. Technologies used to support student learning, such as databases of research literatures, e-text books, video lectures, and other multimedia resources, are being piloted by the library and various faculties. eLSI offers training, help and support; CNS offers software and system specialists that can provide technical assistance.

The mechanics of electronic course delivery, however, remain a challenge. Difficulties in relation to servers, tools on Sakai, service levels from CNS, Internet availability, SIMS and other technology elements have been common and have hampered the use of “course portals” (as envisaged in the previous T & L plan). If e-learning continues to grow on campus, as envisaged by current and proposed T & L plans, greater organizational capacity will be required to assist with developing digital delivery, support for online students and teachers, and to carry out the myriad other functions that are needed to keep the system running.

Wallace and Young (2010) point out that the introduction of any new technologies in education will always result in debate and policy decisions around educational methodology, implementation, evaluation and costs. They argue that the introduction of Blended Learning is not only about the introduction of a new pedagogy, but issues about power, control over education, the culture of the university, the privilege of professors, the rights of students as ‘consumers’—not only ‘how’ something is taught, but what, when, why, by whom, and for what purpose. Wits should be aware that the introduction of blended learning is closely linked to these broader contestations of power, control and institutional culture.

The biggest challenges to the proposal to adopt blended learning are the institutional variables. Blended Learning intersects with so many sectors of a university and requires careful policy development and execution. Administrators need to consider the impact of this modality on infrastructure, programmes and planning. Academics will need to reconsider long held assumptions. Some students’ ability to navigate the existing educational system is already limited; Blended Learning could be even more inaccessible to them. For students, the benefits gained by a blended course are realized only if the associated risks are mitigated; for, without careful course planning and design, the blended format could offer the worst aspects of both the live and online modalities instead of offering the best (Dziuban et al, 2011).

Supporting blended learning is challenging. The range of professional skills needed to design and develop blended courses, create and deliver faculty development, produce instructional media content, conduct assessment, and partner with academic units to develop blended courses or programs is greater in scope and depth than exists at present at Wits. If Blended Learning is to succeed at Wits, then a range of macro and meso matters will need to be addressed before an institutional blended learning initiative is realistic.

  • A commonly understood definition among stakeholders for “blended learning”
  • A blended learning strategy that aligns with institutional goals
  • An effective organizational model to support the blended learning initiative
  • Qualified staff capable of supporting diverse faculty needs and lifecycle of courses
  • User support services to support blended learning
  • A robust planning process to identify blended learning faculty/courses to develop
  • A faculty development program to prepare faculty to teach blended learning courses, including incentives and rewards as part of the program
  • Learner support resources to prepare students to learn in blended learning courses
  • The ability to identify blended learning courses in the class schedule
  • Blended learning policies developed around accessibility, copyright, and intellectual property
  • An evaluation program to assess the impact of the blended learning initiative
  • ROI calculated based on resources dedicated to the blended learning initiative
  • Reusable courses and materials shared within departments engaged in blended learning

(From The Blended Learning Toolkit )

Blended Learning offers potential for improving the manner in which we deal with content; social interaction; reflection; higher order thinking and problem solving; collaborative learning and authentic assessment (Moskal et al, 2013). But institutionalising blended learning is not the silver bullet that will turn Wits into an “IT savvy” University and support 21st Century learning. Wits’ 2022 goals will not be accomplished by adopting the term Blended Learning; it will be necessary to align the Institution’s goals with all other stakeholders’ goals.

On a cautionary note, Moskal (2013) suggests that blended learning itself has a very weak statistical correlation with student success and argues that mode of delivery in general has weak statistical correlation with student success. Rather, he suggests a set of institutional variables (Institutional goals and objectives, organizational capacity, faculty development and course development support, support for online students and faculty, robust and reliable infrastructure, institution-level, longitudinal data collection and assessment, proactive policy development and an effective funding model) has come to be accepted as critical factors for blended learning success.

If more attention is paid to the issues of alignment by leadership, an institutionally-initiated blended learning programme can reap benefits that impact face-to-face teaching and learning across departments. However, significant investments in the areas mentioned will be required to build, deliver, and assess the merits of adopting a “blended learning” approach.

Dziuban, C., Hartman, J., Cavanagh, T. B., & Moskal, P. D. (2011). Blended Courses as Drivers of Institutional Transformation. In Kitchenham, A. (Ed.), Blended Learning across Disciplines: Models for Implementation. (pp. 17-37).
Moskal, P., Dziuban, C., & Hartman, J. (n.d.). Blended learning: A dangerous idea? The Internet and Higher Education., 18, 15-23. Available
Wallace, L., & Young, J. (2010). Implementing blended learning: Policy implications for universities. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(4). Available