Saturday, 27 April 2013

ocTEL Activity 2.2 – Researching themes in learner needs

For this task I’ve chosen to consider the ‘Implications of Digital Literacy’. My current work supporting staff in developing their use of technology for teaching and learning, along with some student experience research I’ve been doing, has brought home the fact that for Higher Education, this area is hugely relevant, extremely complex and routinely ignored and/or misunderstood by senior management.

Initially, I investigated the two suggested resources: the JISC Design Studio pages on Developing Digital literacies and Howard Rheingold’s presentation about 21st century literacies.

I was familiar with the JISC pages, as I’ve been doing a fair bit of research into DL recently and I’ve previously used some of the resources from the site. Nevertheless, this was a good opportunity to take a fresh look. The site provides links to activities and outcomes of the 2 year ‘Developing Digital Literacies’ programme. (July 2011 – July 2013), and it is very usefully divided into Themes and Resources. I found that by looking at the various themes, I was able to break this very broad area down in my mind into more manageable concepts.

The first thing we see on accessing the page is their definition of DL:
By digital literacy we mean those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. For example, the use of digital tools to undertake academic research, writing and critical thinking; digital professionalism; the use of specialist digital tools and data sets; communicating ideas effectively in a range of media; producing, sharing and critically evaluating information; collaborating in virtual networks; using digital technologies to support reflection and PDP; managing digital reputation and showcasing achievements.'”

The first sentence is often quoted as a very broad definition of Digital Literacy, but the examples given are also useful. The issue of defining DL is  a very large can of worms which, in my view, is not necessarily worth opening... Gillen and Barton (2010) suggest in the introduction to their Digital Literacies Research Briefing Paper:

The term captures an arena of rapidly developing practices, as humans interact with technologies in new ways and for innovative purposes. Many time-honoured distinctions such as between producer and consumer, writer and reader blur or virtually disappear as new syntheses emerge. There are a number of valuable approaches to digital literacies that overlap with one another. Rather than look for clear distinctions to demarcate them, it is perhaps more helpful to look for continuities and commonalities.”

Just as there are different approaches to digital literacies, there are also many different definitions of the term. Instead of getting stuck in a semantic soup, it is probably more productive to simply acknowledge that there is no one size fits all definition, and that for each individual, and each learning and teaching context, there will be some digital literacies which are more relevant and meaningful than others.

Below is a list of points or issues which I came across on the JISC website which chimed with my own experience or views:

  • Digital literacies need to be situated and embedded in the curriculum, rather than introduced in isolation.
  • Discipline-specific digital literacies need to be explored and, where possible, co-created with relevant staff and students.
  • For staff, a focus on Digital Literacies can function as a ‘trojan mouse’, encouraging them towards a broader reconsideration of their teaching and learning practices.
  • Digital Literacy development needs to take in not just teaching staff and students, but also administrative and support staff and senior management.
  • If the focus is too subject-specific, there is a danger that attention will only be paid to particular technologies used in that discipline (e.g. SPSS, CAD etc.) and the more generic, but nevertheless crucial skills will be ignored.
  • Both bottom-up and top-down approaches are necessary in order to develop digital literacies in an institution
  • Building bridges between different departments, faculties and services within the university can enable the sharing of expertise and exposure to alternative views and approaches.

In a teaching context, if we are using a particular technology with our students, I think it is always important to be explicit about why we are using it, how it relates to the learning outcomes and objectives of their course and/or particular graduate attributes. Having a conversation about digital practices can help us to understand more about our learners’ uses of technology and perhaps some of the obstacles they face, and we can also learn from our students. Digital literacy should not be assumed or ignored but should be part of an ongoing dialogue we have with both our students and our colleagues.

Once it becomes clear the extent to which issues around digital literacies affect an institution, its staff, its students, its strategy and its practices, then it should also be clear that it will take more than a few ‘workshops’ to begin to address some of these issues. What we’re talking about really is wholesale cultural change throughout the university. These Seedpod recommendations give an idea of what I’m talking about.

‘Hub and spoke’ models can be useful, but the problem is, if some of the spokes 'break' (i.e. leave the university or are given increased teaching loads), they become less effective. Collaboration between faculties, departments and library services can be very fruitful, as can involving students in co-creating digital literacy agendas. The greatest obstacles in many institutions seem to be time and money (as always) but also a lack of vision and understanding among many stakeholders, especially senior management, of just how fundamentally technology is altering the learning and teaching landscape, and of what it will take to address these seismic shifts in a way that can both benefit students and allow staff to develop their own practice in meaningful ways.

I had to temporarily suspend my critical faculties to get past Howard Rheingold’s jacket and shirt combo in this presentation, but once I did I found that he had a lot of interesting things to say. While the JISC pages are particular relevant to my own situation as a Blended Learning Facilitator and EAP Lecturer at a university, this presentation was of less immediate use, but nonetheless highlighted some pertinent issues. For example, what is the relationship between skills and literacies? 

Rheingold puts forward 5 areas of literacy: Attention, Participation, Cooperation, Critical consumption and Network awareness and suggests that these all work together. He also says that we have gone beyond skills and that it’s necessary to talk about literacies which are ‘skills plus community’ (by which he generally means social media). The community aspect is certainly key – the hype around ‘social learning’, the importance of PLNs and PLEs (Personal Learning Networks/Environments), the crowd and the cloud all mean that we are all connected and members of an increasing number of large and small networks which cut across many aspects of our lives.

Can we consider digital literacies as a set of fairly abstract concepts which contain a subset of more specific skills? Perhaps the literacy remains fairly constant while the skills can shift with the technological landscape? If we use the OU DL framework as an example, one of their 5 literacies is ‘Critically evaluate information, online interactions and online tools’. It is possible to outline a set of skills pertaining to this literacy. E.g. ability to find information about the author of web content, make a judgement about the reliability of content based on further information about the author (e.g. where they work, publications, online profile, mentions by other academics etc.). The tools used to realise these actions could be Google Scholar, Twitter, library resources or any number of others, but the point is, the tools and indeed the skills themselves may change, but the underlying literacies will remain the same.

Digital Literacy Frameworks

OU Digital Literacy Framework Level 0

Finally, I do think that digital literacies frameworks serve as useful starting points. However, ideally there is probably a need to have students and staff working together to produce a DL framework for their particular discipline. 

Perhaps there could be one central framework which attempts to outline a set of generic literacies, but this would be designed to have discipline-specific literacies added to it. I also see no reason why this framework could not include literacies relevant for both students and teaching staff. In fact, I can see merit in identifying, for example, the areas of the framework where teaching staff perhaps have difficulties, and then involving students in helping them to address this gap and vice versa. For example, an informal session run by students on how to create and upload a YouTube video in return for a session run by a lecturer on how to engage your critical faculties in an online search. I can see a place for a type of Digital Literacies Exchange between staff and students which simultaneously looks to co-create more discipline-specific DL frameworks in particular subject areas. But perhaps that's just me being idealistic....

Here are a few resources which I’ve found useful (also on Diigo #ocTEL #diglit):   (Deft Project – Sheffield Hallam University)

Digital Literacies Research Briefing (TLRP) (introduction gives a succinct overview of digital literacy)

Situating Digital Literacies  (useful models from Helen Beetham)

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Activity 24: Open learner literacies (& whale sharks)

For this task, we were asked to draw up a set of open learner literacies which cover the types of skill you feel are important for an individual to learn successfully in an open learning context’.

Digital literacies is already a very broad term, encompassing ICT literacy, media literacy, information literacy and visual literacy (Beetham, 2010) among other elements such as creativity, communication skills and online identity curation. So the ‘literacies’ in Open learner literacies, I would argue, similarly traverse different domains. 

One question then, is to what extent the specific context of the open learner (someone using OER, a MOOC, informal or lifelong learning) requires a unique or specific set of literacies, as opposed to those more general digital literacies. It could be argued that open learner literacies are, to some extent, high level digital literacies. For example, looking at this OUdigital literacy framework, it has 5 very general categories of literacy (with OU students in mind):
  • Understand and engage in digital practices
  • Find information
  • Critically evaluate information, online interactions and online tools
  • Manage and communicate information
  • Collaborate and share digital content

These are divided into more specific skills which go from Level 1 (Foundation stage) through 2 and 3, to Masters level. As an example, looking at the first literacy ‘Understand and engage in digital practices’, one of the skills at Level 1 is Demonstrate basic use of a range of tools and websites for finding and recording information online: internet browsers, search engines, copy/paste and download functions. At Masters level there are skills such as Give evidence of proactive participation in academic and/or professional online networks. Perhaps some open learner literacies could be said to extend beyond Masters level, applying as they do to lifelong learning, CPD, MOOC users and so on. For me, this course has demonstrated that to really thrive in a MOOC and OER environment, it’s necessary to have a fairly high level of digital literacy, so it’s interesting to consider whether these OLLs are in some ways simply advanced / high level digital literacies. 

It is also worth considering to what extent open learner literacies are discipline-specific. Every learner is an individual and will therefore have their own particular needs, so to what extent is it possible to come up with a list of OLLs that are generic (applicable across the board)?

I’m not going to draw up a complete set of literacies broken down into particular skills, partly because I think this has been done very well already by others enrolled on the course e.g. Nuala Davis, Wayne Barry, CeciliaRosy, Dave Barr  (not because I’m lazy of course..)  Instead, here are a few considerations of a slightly more abstract nature about what makes an effective open learner:
Tolerance of ambiguity – as an open learner there may be times when things are not spelt out in black and white, there may be confusion as to what to do or how to do it. How do we react to this situation? By experimenting, connecting with others to see what they do, acknowledging that the learning process can be ‘messy’, or by getting angry and rejecting the learning experience out of hand?
Curiosity – a desire to learn and discover new thinɡs, whatever the subject, aɡe, life circumstances etc. This underlying ‘intrinsic’ motivation is one of the most important drivers of any kind of learning. As an example, during this course I’ve had moments in which I’ve suddenly become totally immersed in various links, videos and papers regardless of whether they are directly related to the task I’m engaged in. Why? Because I’m curious to find out more about the subject. (for example, my train of thought doing this task just led me to a TED talk on ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, even though I won’t be using it for this post or any particular purpose).
Filter-feeding – like a whale shark cruising the ocean filtering thousands of gallons of water to get to the good stuff, the plankton, an open learner needs to be able to filter out what is good and useful for his / her needs and discard the rest. Which of the countless videos, presentations, thoughts, blog posts, articles, tweets and retweets floating around in the internet ocean will nourish the learning, and how to ignore those that don’t? (what is our equivalent of baleen?)
Resilience – related to the idea of tolerating ambiguity, if something goes wrong or a learner comes across difficulty they need to be resilient and persistent. If a browser crashes and a blog post is lost, or nobody comments on an uploaded post or comment, can the learner see the bigger picture, recognise that no technology is infallible and find a way around the problem, learn from the experience?
Digital Bravery vs Digital Maturity – I believe these terms were coined by Rhona Sharpe and Greg Benfield (see this HEA article) although the terms themselves are not expanded on in great detail.
I see Digital bravery as something that many students have, but which many educators lack. Not being afraid to click / swipe / open on a computer or other device, trying things out and if they don’t work, trying something else, partly as a result of growing up immersed in technology and the familiarity which that brings. The Digital maturity (academic literacy + some degree of digital skill) I see as something many students lack but which educators often possess – the ability to critically evaluate online information, use technology for academic purposes apply their ‘crap detector’ to paraphrase Howard Rheingold. If educators can develop their digital bravery and students their digital maturity, we might be getting somewhere. Bringing them together to help each other and co-create discipline-specific digital literacy frameworks would be a useful exercise.
Restricting your network – This is related to filter-feeding, but instead of applying your filter to content, you’re actually applying it to people. A lot of talk is about building up your PLN, following hundreds of people on Twitter, immersing yourself in the blogosphere and social networks, but in fact there is also a need to create ‘networks within networks’. As an example, rather than attempt to read all the blog posts appearing on the h817 aggregator or follow everything going on across the forums etc. , in order to make sense of the content, I found it necessary to be part of a smaller Google+ community which became my first port of call. So this skill is partly about restricting and partly about identifying others who have similar interests and whose ideas and comments resonate with your own context.
Acceptance – being involved in massive online communities means being exposed to many different and sometimes conflicting opinions (which is a good thing). In this environment there’s a need to accept different opinions, or people who might ‘rub you up the wrong way’. Although we might seek out others with whom we share similar opinions, this exposure to different ways of thinking and views is one of the exciting things about open learning.
Identity curation – How good are you at managing / curating your online identity? To what extent do your professional and personal online profiles intertwine? Does your digital identity (or your digital identities) contribute to achieving your learning objectives?
Metacognition – self-awareness as a learner and ability to learn to your own strengths and reflect on that learning process.
Creativity – capacity to experiment and try out different ways of doing things, mashup different tools and to push the boundaries.
Multi-tasking – for want of a better word.. Are there any strategies an open learner can employ to help use their time (which may be limited) productively and to avoid getting distracted? How to maintain focus and concentration when we have countless other distractions – either on our computer or other devices, or going on around us in the ‘real world’.

So, a slightly vague list I know, and I haven’t ‘drilled down’ to the level of more specific skills, but hopefully some food for thought.

Beetham, H. (2010) Review and Scoping Study for a cross-JISC Learning and Digital Literacies Programme: Sept 2010 [JISC] Available at: [Accessed: 24/04/2013]

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Activity 22: An open education technology

Write a short blog post suggesting one additional technology that is important for open education, either from the role of a learner or a provider.

"The Cloud"....

As we can interpret this fairly loosely, I'd argue that cloud-based services are having and will have a huge impact. No longer being tethered to a particular location while retaining access to documents, links and networks seems to me to be hugely important in the spread of open educational practices. With tablet sales overtaking desktop PC sales, we need technologies which can sync across devices, hence the popularity of cloud-based file sharing and storage such as Dropbox, Google Drive, social bookmarking tools like Diigo and Delicious, organisers like Evernote - the list is endless - all of which encourage and facilitate the sharing of content and collaborative practices and help learners and teachers to move away from the 'walled garden' and proprietary approach common in many institutions. I'd argue that the increasing interest in BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) initiatives is further proof of this shift. In my view, many HE institutions (at least in the UK) haven't even begun to address this technological evolution and how it affects them, and there are going to be some interesting 'discussions' to be had over the next few years...

Week 6: Activity 21

For Activity 21 of Week 6 we were asked to discuss the relationship between technology and pedagogic theory and practice, drawing on your own context and experience

What is your own experience and view?
In a teaching context, I have often found myself in the position of trying out new technologies with students as a new way to achieve certain learning outcomes, without actively framing this process in pedagogical terms. For example: A couple of years ago, with a group of English language learners, I started using my smartphone to record small group discussions. I was simply using the technology as an easy way to record learners and to provide them with that recording. I then had the idea of uploading the files to Soundcloud, an app which is generally used for music sharing. From using the app myself, I knew that it was possible to comment at specific times on the timeline of a recording so I decided to upload the student discussions to Soundcloud, give them access and ask them to listen to their own contributions to the discussion and comment on various aspects. I then asked them to make a comment on each of the other students’ contributions in their group. This was followed up in a face to face class looking at general feedback of what they did well and what they could improve.
When doing this, I wasn’t actively considering theoretical frameworks, just thinking it might help build learners’ awareness of their own contributions to the discussion and allow them to focus on some of their mistakes/errors. I suppose I could call this a social constructivist approach, but how many practitioners actually think in these terms in their day to day teaching?
Do you regard either pedagogy or technology as more significant than the other?
Does one have to be more significant than the other? In the above example, the revelation of what a powerful tool a mobile phone can be in a classroom setting, coupled with the particular format of Soundcloud allowing timed commenting were both crucial to what I was doing – they were the catalyst to try something new. However, I wasn’t trying something new just because I was dazzled by the technology, but because I saw potential to enhance my teaching practice. I could equally have come at it from another angle. i.e. my learners lack opportunities to reflect on and listen back to their speaking, how can I allow them to listen again and comment on their own and others’ contributions and help to raise awareness of some of their most common language problems? And from there selected a tool to fulfil that aim. The perhaps often ignored role of technology here was that it actually encouraged me to reflect on and develop my practice in new ways.
How do technology and pedagogy influence each other?
There’s no doubt that technology can and does influence the way we teach, at least in most ‘developed world’ contexts. It’s easy to look at my teaching now, and compare it to my teaching 15 years ago and list the changes brought about by technology. However, I like to think that most of those changes were accompanied by pedagogical considerations (conscious or otherwise), and that I wasn’t simply employing new technologies in a ‘bells and whistles’ spirit, because they were shiny and new.
For me the real interest and focus should be on how the context for the learner has changed. The OED defines pedagogy as “the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept”. Looking at the etymology of the word it seems to derive from words meaning child and lead, so to lead the child. If we’re leading our learners from A to B and there’s one, well-defined path, then maybe that’s relatively simple. But what if there are thousands of alternative paths? What if our learner may not actually want or need to go to B, but instead needs to get to C or D? Is that not, in some ways, what is happening now?
From the other MOOC I’m currently doing (ocTEL – am I connecting ‘nodes’ here?), I’ve come across the term ‘heutagogy’ which I think is potentially interesting (at least for my own context) as it places the emphasis firmly on the learner. Here’s a quote from an article on heutagogy by Lisa Marie Blaschke 

“Heutagogy applies a holistic approach to developing learner capabilities, with learning as an active and proactive process, and learners serving as “the major agent in their own learning, which occurs as a result of personal experiences” (Hase & Kenyon, 2007, p. 112). As in an andragogical approach, in heutagogy the instructor also facilitates the learning process by providing guidance and resources, but fully relinquishes ownership of the learning path and process to the learner, who negotiates learning and determines what will be learned and how it will be learned (Hase & Kenyon, 2000; Eberle, 2009)”.

Of course, this implies a certain ‘maturity’ on the part of the learner and may not be relevant to certain teaching and learning contexts. Nevertheless, it seems to be viewed by some as particularly relevant to the current socio-technical learning environment characterised by Web 2.0 tools. It also appears to be quite a good fit with openness, MOOCs and connectivist approaches. Fred Garnett talks of the PAH continuum (Pedagogy – Andragogy – Heutagogy) and describes the idea of heutagogy and the open context model of learning
Do you have experience where either technology or pedagogy has been given more weight than the other?
Yes! Both. But I've run out of time... J

Friday, 19 April 2013

5 stories about technology

OCTEL Week 1:

Watching the short video clips of the 5 speakers, it struck me how much my opinion and feelings about each learning intervention was influenced by my impressions of the speaker. These were inevitably coloured by the way the speaker came across and also whether I had seen the speaker before. For example, having seen several Sugata Mitra talks online, I enjoy the way he speaks and tells a story, so I want to believe in what he’s saying. For me, his famous hole-in-the-wall experiment resonates because it serves as a reminder of the extent to which the actual process of learning rests with the learner and that the teacher’s role can be merely to guide, prompt and nudge in a particular direction. Although my own context is Higher Education, the way he describes peer interaction, mentoring and self-organising systems is particularly relevant given the emphasis on group work in many HE courses and the increasingly large student cohorts.

I also liked the way Eric Mazur spoke and explained his ideas on how to increase student engagement with learning during lectures. His seems to be a measured voice among all the hysterical claims that the ‘lecture is dead’. In my view, unless someone comes up with a truly viable and scaleable alternative, the lecture is here to stay, but that does not mean that it has to retain the same format. Mazur looks at fairly simple ways to make lectures more interactive, more effective learning environments using technology that students have in their pockets (or simple clickers) and that is surely a step in the right direction.

As I’m currently looking at Connectivism for another MOOC (!), I chose not to go into it here. I wanted to like the Helen Keegan TEL intervention but just couldn’t really get my head round it – I’m sure that the learners had an interesting experience but I can’t imagine how it would apply to my own practice so switched off after a while.

The 5 talks demonstrate the diverse nature of TEL. In some cases, a communications technology such as Skype, not specifically designed for learning, is pressed into service as a learning tool e.g.  Sugata Mitra describing the role of British grannies. Then at the other end of the spectrum are those technologies designed specifically with learning in mind – I’m thinking of the haptic technologies used in the School of Dentistry at King’s College. It seems that in a sense this is a ‘true’ learning technology in that it is a technology which has been specifically designed and / or adapted to learn a specific skill. I like the clarity/concreteness of its use, and if I wanted to be a dentist I would certainly want to study using this technology.

So TEL can range from simple clickers or a computer in a hole in the wall in Delhi, through to cutting edge haptic technology or complex mashups of social media tools to create an immersive learning environment. This diversity, for me, underlines why the term TEL can seem slightly redundant - what we're talking about is learning as it happens now, using what we have available, rather than some peculiar or different brand of learning (because it happens to involve technology).

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

A Connectivist approach to digital literacy...

Here's my attempt to look at the digital skills mini-course sketched out in Week 1 through a 'Connectivist lens' with some suggested activities.

In my view, the concept of Connectivism is useful as it adds to the dialogue about learning theories and their relevance or otherwise in a 'digital age'. It also encourages us to think more carefully about the nature of networks and the way our learning is becoming distributed. However, I also have some doubts about it and think it needs to be approached with caution (see below).


Week 1

1. Finding & Evaluating online resources
(search skills and developing critical awareness of web content)
Provide a set of links to articles / blog posts about learning in a digital age. Give learners a set of questions designed to make them consider issues of reliability, credibility of source, reputation and so on. (Learning and Knowledge rests in diversity of opinions)

Ask each student to contribute 2 more links to articles/posts they find useful. Set up a group Diigo or Delicious account for them to add their links to. (Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources).

Week 2

2. Creativity Tools
(moving from consumer to producer of content: video, audio, blogging, Prezi etc.)
Look at various different content delivery mechanisms/platforms: Slideshare, Prezi, YouTube, Issuu, Haiku Deck, podcasts, Powerpoint etc. – which do they prefer and why? Are some more suitable for certain types of content? Students choose one tool, or a combination of tools and use it to describe their own developing Personal Learning Network, then upload or embed this on their blogs. Then comment on another student’s PLN. (Decision making is itself a learning process…)

Week 3

3. Building your learning network
(e.g. using Twitter, social bookmarking, research portals etc.)
Students would be encouraged to use RSS feeds to ensure they stay up to date with bloggers they identified in Week 1. (Learning may reside in non-human appliances)
Have students set up a Twitter account and suggest 4 or 5 well-known thinkers / practitioners to follow. (Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources). Students think about how they could use the PLN they are building for future learning opportunities – e.g. setting up subject specific social bookmarking groups, following experts in their field on Twitter and so on (capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known)

Week 4

4. Staying safe online
(raising awareness of privacy issues on social networking sites etc.)

Use case studies of people who’ve got into trouble through things they’ve posted on social media sites (e.g. young police commissioner and Twitter). Students think about their own online profile and how they can make sure it doesn’t come back to haunt them one day. (ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill).

Week 5

5. Managing your online identity
(looking at online profile as a graduate attribute to be actively developed)

Students set up a Linked In profile. Provide links to expert current advice on maintaining a Linked In profile (Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities) and have students use this to help them create their own profiles. (Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning).

While connectivism perhaps encourages us to think again about learning in a technology-saturated environment, I don't think it can or should be held up as an all-encompassing learning theory, and in my view the more traditional behaviourist, cognitivist and constructivist theories are still relevant and useful in helping us to understand learning. In the course above, I've somewhat artificially levered in some of the connectivist principles (which I'd do anyway without calling them connectivist), but at the same time:

  • One objective of the course would be to 'condition' students to use distributed networks to access up to date information, use social bookmarking sites to save and share relevant sites and effectively change their behaviour etc. (Behaviourism?)
  • Through providing readings and other sources of information, I'd also hope that this would help them shape their ideas, comparing new information with what is already known and building on existing 'schema' (Cognitivism?)
  • I would certainly expect them to interact with their peers and build on their existing knowledge through social interactions (Social Constructivism?) 
In conclusion, the majority of effective teachers and learners throughout the world have probably never heard of connectivism, rhizomatic learning or social constructivism, but they still do what they do very well. It's useful to try to describe learning theories, but let's not get too hung up about it. That's my view anyway ;-)

Activity 17: Abundance...

‘The issue for educators is twofold I would suggest: firstly how can they best take advantage of abundance in their own teaching practice, and secondly how do we best equip learners to make use of it?’

Firstly, in such a resource-saturated environment I think it’s fair to say that we are all constantly learning, whether our ‘role’ is educator or learner.

My context: One area of my professional life involves teaching English for Academic Purposes on pre-sessional courses. Firstly, I must say that I love the opportunities that this abundance of content gives me for enhancing the learning experience of my students. I am lucky in that I teach in a classroom equipped with Internet, projector, IWB and I try not to take these for granted - when I started teaching English as a Foreign Language, we were lucky if we could get a beat-up old tape recorder…) These opportunities range from the incredibly simple e.g. using Google Images if I’m having trouble explaining the meaning of a word (obviously doesn’t work for all words), or giving small groups of students a different web resource each, getting them to go away and evaluate it according to various criteria then present their findings in class, getting them to create their own OER ‘Top 10 sites for academic writing skills’, using part of a TED talk as a discussion starter etc.

The ease with which content can be created provides previously unimaginable opportunities, and the more students jump into this giant pool of resources, the more adept they become at finding good quality resources and understanding how they can be useful in their own particular context. In my view, as educators, it’s possible to model or demonstrate this kind of open approach to content. Using these resources as part of our teaching, but also acknowledging where they come from, any drawbacks they may have, alternative perspectives and so on…modelling good practice where possible. But there’s also a need to be realistic. Certainly, in Higher Education, many of the structures governing assessment and accreditation have not caught up with this abundance of content. There are still academic norms which don’t sit very comfortably within this new context. Critical thinking and evaluation, the ability to paraphrase and synthesise ideas and correctly reference sources do not go out of the window simply because there’s more content out there. There is definitely, in my view, a need to think about how advice and practice related to using abundant resources effectively can be embedded into the curriculum.

As an educator, I would stress the importance of the people around you, your physical and virtual community, and the importance of really effective communication channels. For me, taking advantage of these abundant resources is something that is best done as part of a network of individuals with similar goals, for example, within a particular subject area or department. Sharing knowledge this way, and relying on peers as a time-saver and indicator of quality of resources becomes easy and useful if there is an effective mechanism for doing it. Sadly, in my experience, this doesn't often seem to be the case.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Activity 14: Thinking about MOOCs

[This post is for Activity 14 of the H817 Open Education course]

For this exercise, I had a look at four relatively well known MOOCs or MOOC platforms. The Change MOOC and DS106 were given as examples of cMOOCs, which are regarded as the ‘original’ MOOCs and are characterised by their connectivist approach. Then there was Coursera, an xMOOC platform which hosts courses offered by (at the time of writing) around 60 universities worldwide. Udacity was the other (x)MOOC provider offered up for comparison.

Here’s my attempt to aggregate, relate, create and share:

First of all, have a look at two excellent posts from fellow participants Inger-Marie Christensen and Sukaina Walji as, for me, they’ve done an excellent job of summarising the key technological, pedagogical and general/philosophical considerations when investigating the various MOOC types.

Instead of going over the same ground, I’ve decided to put down a few bullet points of what I consider to be key questions and issues for any comparison of so-called xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

Key issues:

One size does not fit all: There is little sense in comparing the various types of MOOC to say which is ‘better’. Anybody taking part in some kind of MOOC comes into it with their own expectations and needs. What works for one does not necessarily work for another.

The role of the 'Instructor': The contrast in the roles of the instructor in each type of MOOC is worth further exploration. The xMOOC seems to have more of a ‘Sage on the Stage’ approach, whereas those running the cMOOCs  would probably describe themselves as Facilitators (the Guide on the Side). These are very different roles, although I do not think it necessarily follows that the Guide role requires less time and input. It may be more difficult in many ways, as teachers/lecturers are less used to facilitating these types of distributed interactions (but ask them to create a powerpoint of a lecture to put up and it may take time, but they should be familiar with the task and technology).

Dropout rates: The focus on dropout rates does not tell the whole story.  As Anant Agrawal, head of edX pointed out, “while the rate of attrition may seem high, if you look at the number in absolute terms, it's as many students as might take the course in 40 years at MIT.” (Daniel, 2012) Some of these courses do not necessarily need to be 'completed'.

Benefit to learners? It would be useful to see evidence of what those learners (particularly) in developing countries who have completed a MOOC have been able to do with it – have students been awarded scholarships, been employed or accepted on university courses on the strength of their participation in a MOOC? Where is the evidence that completion of a MOOC is actually valuable in real terms, to back up claims such as this one by Coursera: “…we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.” A laudable aim of course. They hope to and they want to, but do they? Or is it too early to tell?

Rhetoric: However, perhaps these Utopian and unrealistic xMOOC claims do not really matter – the important thing is that they are contributing to the debate and experimenting, even if their ultimate objective is financial, it is nevertheless acknowledging the new educational landscape and perhaps helping to push universities into thinking more about it and ‘dipping their toes in the water’.

Pedagogy: In my view the cMOOCs are more interesting pedagogically, even if some of the theory seems a bit wishy-washy. xMOOCs giving free access to quality learning content and expertise is great, but in pedagogical terms they seem to take the same old transmission approach (which no doubt can be very effective in certain circumstances). The teacher here is the gatekeeper of knowledge, drip-feeding students with the good stuff - all they need to do is soak it all up. The Change MOOC and DS106, on the other hand, allow the learner a far greater role in their own learning, acknowledging that it's not necessarily what you know anymore, but how you know, how you access, filter and use the knowledge and networks that are out there.  By building connections, remixing and repurposing distributed content, and allowing students to a certain extent to become co-creators of the course, this model seems better designed for a constantly evolving technological landscape.

cMOOCs aren't for everyone: Being a learner on a 'connectivist' type MOOC is more challenging and requires a fairly high level of digital literacy. Many learners might not tolerate ambiguity very well and prefer a more directed approach. It may be that this type of MOOC is, for now, more suited to lifelong learners, educators, hobbyists etc and for professional development purposes, rather than your average undergraduate cohort. It also seems clear that only a relatively small proportion of participants on a cMOOC type course will be capable of engaging successfully in the four major types of activity: Aggregation, Relation, Creation, Sharing (Kop, 2011)

Course quality: The quality of courses in Coursera to a certain extent depends on the institution. Although the course has to be built within the Coursera platform, there seems to be a degree of flexibility built in, and no reason why universities could not add to and develop their courses in more interesting pedagogical directions. (this is probably already happening, but as I have not taken part I cannot say)

The role of MOOCs: Not all MOOCs need to be aimed at hundreds of thousands of students around the globe. They could be a useful tool to help plug various gaps – e.g a Digital Literacies MOOC as part of a Continuing Professional Development programme for Higher Education staff, or as part of an induction for new students coming to university for the first time to make the ‘transition’ between school and HE easier and so on. The possibilities are endless. These types of course could start relatively small but then become ‘moocified’ as more collaborators join and the course becomes more widely disseminated and open to greater numbers.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Week 4: Activity 12...

Before we examine MOOCs in more detail, briefly consider if the MOOC approach could be adopted in your own area of education or training. Post your thoughts in your blog and then read and comment on your peers’ postings.

This is a very interesting question and one to which I’ve been giving quite a lot of thought lately. In a university context, with any form of staff development and training currently so hard to implement (time-poor, cash-strapped, uninterested etc), it’s got to be worth exploring more effective ways to help staff who want to develop their digital selves (and maybe even encourage those who don’t see the need…) It’s all very well creating online resources and plugging away with the workshops and so on, but it’s still a huge challenge to get many people in Higher Ed involved. Is there a way to make people more aware of what we (and others) have put online, help them to engage with these resources and link what they do with them to a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) framework?

Here’s a possible scenario. A group of committed and innovative educationalists and ed techies put together an online collection of resources related to, for example, support for staff who want to develop their digital literacies. E.g. getting started with a PLN, beginner’s guide to blogging, social bookmarking, social networking for academics and so on. As people begin to find out about and use the resources, someone says ‘but how can I get some kind of recognition for all this time I’m spending? Can I use it as part of my ‘official’ CPD?'
This is kind of where we are at the moment, so the next question…

Instead of just building this OER (or collection of little OERs) to sit there, all nice and new and shiny, how can we encourage interaction, involvement and interest? Why don’t we try a mini-MOOC? Only, if it’s just for staff in one institution, wouldn’t that make it a MOC, or even an OC? Well, we could try building a prototype MOOC around the resources we already have, get staff to set up their own blogs, have some kind of aggregator then start to link this to our own professional development framework.. if it works, we could put an ‘o’ in it, take it outside the boundaries of our university, maybe eventually we might be able to develop it to the point where it could be linked to HEA or SEDA frameworks! Imagine that… 

Of course, this would entail significant human and financial resources. Perhaps the use of a few flipping buzz words/phrases like MOOC, Digital Literacies would make Senior Management’s ears prick up? Or if not, with resources so hard to come by, perhaps teaming up with another university (or universities) might be an avenue worth exploring.. lots to think about and ponder over the next few weeks...

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Activity 11 - big OER vs little OER

First of all, it is probably a good idea to decide what is meant by the big and little OER ‘approaches’. The word 'approach' implies something deliberate or strategic maybe and, in my view, while this can certainly be applied to many big OER projects, it is more challenging to understand what a little OER ‘approach’ might be.

When talking about big OER, it seems that we are generally referring to MOOCs or certainly some type of course or ‘package’ of learning materials. (does an OER repository such as Jorum, Connexions etc. count as a big OER?) 


Legitimacy: There is a significant financial and reputational investment for those involved in producing (or hosting) big OER (e.g Harvard, MIT, Edinburgh, OU, Coursera etc), and to a certain extent this investment, and the name of the institution, give the courses and materials legitimacy, and there is an underlying assumption that the content provided will be of a high quality. [I think here it’s certainly valid to ask what exactly is meant by high quality. The course may well feature world-renowned experts in a field delivering their pearls of wisdom for the masses absolutely free, but what about the learning itself, what about the processes around the content, the activities the students engage in, the quality of interaction on any discussion platforms provided, or the associated assessment and feedback processes, if there are any? Does quality content equal quality learning? As we know, the dropout rates from many of these MOOCs are extremely high, so perhaps the measures used to determine quality are the wrong ones?]

Openness: If we look at David Wiley’s 4 criteria for openness: Revise, Remix, Reuse, Redistribute, then two of these often do not seem to apply to many of the big OERs. It appears to be relatively rare that other institutions or individuals revise and remix the content of these courses. As Martin Weller points out: “the experience of the OpenLearn project has been that very few units are changed or adapted for use.” (Weller, 2010) It could be that they are in fact not particularly open, and that institutions providing them retain a fairly strong control over how they are used. As Patrick McAndrew (OU) pointed out at the recent OER13 conference: “Often you can’t actually see into the [course] materials until you make a commitment,” and “They are creating a sort of closed community in the open.”

Pedagogy: A common criticism of big OERs, and particularly xMOOCs, is that pedagogically they are simply replicating outdated educational models. Many commentators believe that the new technological landscape is encouraging a move towards more social constructivist and connected forms of learning, and perhaps in some ways xMOOCs embody the old ‘transmission’ or ‘sage on the stage’ model of education, and fail to take into account this changing learner landscape.
As Knox et al. point out:
“All of these MOOC platforms appear to justify their status by promoting curricula that are equivalent to campus-based courses, with a strong focus on content delivery and an emphasis on the rigor and formality of their assessment methods.  However, some of the most interesting and innovative practices in online education have emerged by challenging these very ideas; loosening institutional control of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, shifting from a focus on content delivery to a foregrounding of process, community and learning networks, and working with more exploratory assessment methods – digital and multimodal assignments, peer assessment and group assignments, for example.” (2012) 

Having said that, one size does not fit all, and there is probably an argument to say that this model is entirely suitable for many of the students taking these courses, and that there is a certain comfort to be found in these familiar structures.

Little OER

Little OER approach? It is more difficult to ascertain what constitutes a little OER ‘approach’. It seems rare for a Higher Education institution to have specific policies or strategy objectives related to the use of OERs. Instead, where they are used, the process appears to be fairly disorganised and random, involving a relatively small number of staff engaging with new technologies and creating and sharing resources, but often on an ad hoc basis. These resources may well not end up in an OER repository, or have any wider reach than the department or university in which they are produced. This, then, is one disadvantage of little OERs – whilst they are quick, relatively easy and cheap to produce, they may not exist within a coherent framework or be easily accessible for others to find. They frequently also ‘reinvent the wheel’ and lack any form of scaffolding or information as to how they might be used. In terms of quality, because they can be produced individually, on a small-scale, there is often no guarantee of quality or reliability. However, despite these drawbacks, little OERs can be more flexible as they allow other educators to reuse and remix them for their own purposes, and provide a framework to match their own particular teaching and learning context. New technologies also provide a plethora of relatively simple new ways for educators to express themselves and breathe new life into their subject and teaching, and for some this can be a highly motivating experience.

It may be interesting to consider what a little OER ‘approach’ would actually look like. In terms of creating OERs, if their development is to be encouraged among academics (e.g. uploading a presentation to slideshare, creating a video or screencast, writing a blog etc.) then attention will need to be paid to the digital literacies of teaching staff and also the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question will need to be addressed. This is a huge challenge and one that is, in my view, far from frictionless. To a certain extent, the much maligned VLE (or LMS) already provides one way of giving context to little OERs – think of the lecturers using the Mashup feature in Blackboard Learn to integrate YouTube videos, Slideshare and Flickr for example. Of course, as long as they are inside an institutional VLE they are OERs not OERs, but perhaps the VLE could serve as a kind of testing ground and quality control mechanism from which the best OERs produced by a Faculty or in a Subject Area could subsequently be disseminated more widely and openly among the HE community. In terms of finding and using little OERs which already exist, consideration needs to be given to issues of copyright and making staff aware of these, how to locate useful OERs and how to integrate these effectively into a specific learning and teaching context, none of which are necessarily easy.

ps: I have a problem with words like ‘frictionless’ and ‘seamless’. Whenever I see or hear the word seamless in a higher education context, I can be sure that the reality will be the exact opposite. I fear that frictionless might fall into the same category. In fact, a bit of friction is, in my view, inevitable and probably necessary.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Killing 2 birds with 1 stone - Activities 9 & 10

Activity 9
I hadn’t really considered attaching any particular licence to my blog content (at least not for this course blog). I don’t see it as a resource which would necessarily be reused, and if anybody reads it and likes an idea and wants to repeat that idea, then I think attribution is fair (and I would always do the same myself if quoting from somebody else’s blog). If I had to add a CC licence then I’d probably opt for CC-BY

For other content which I am working on in my professional role, the story is different and more complex. I’m currently working, with a colleague, on a resource for lecturers/teaching staff in HE aimed at showcasing examples of good practice, encouraging experimentation with new technologies, providing resources and guides for the use of our VLE (Blackboard) etc. The content will be a mix of our own screencasts, documentation, images and videos and (little) OERs from other institutions. The intention is for this to be an OER – although there will also be a staff only Blackboard showcase module which will require an institutional login. As I see it there are two issues here:

  1. Making sure that we give the correct credit for the little OERs that we use (relatively simple).
  2. Thinking about which type of licence to give our own site (more complicated). As it’s quite a comprehensive site, with a variety of different types of content, it’s not appropriate just to slap a Creative Commons licence on to cover everything. For a start, many of the OERs we use will have different types of licence, others may be resources we’ve developed which we wish to release as Non-Commercial or No Derivative and so on. We may end up with an overall copyright statement on a separate page, while applying a variety of CC licenses to individual resources within the site.

* If anyone’s interested, our site is  - it’s very much a work in progress. (comments /feedback welcome!)

 Activity 10

I found the exercise of trying to apply the 3 models suggested by Wiley of limited use, although as a process it succeeded in getting me thinking about issues of sustainability and different approaches to open education initiatives. It was difficult to find any really clear matches, so I agree with others who have found that most of the initiatives don’t fit into just one model and tend to be a hybrid of more than one. Also, given that the USU model was clearly not sustainable, as it closed down in 2009, it may be that this is not a great model for others to follow!

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Another day, another MOOC - this time it's OCTEL

Hi - my name's Jim Pettiward. I first developed my interest in learning technology as an English Teacher (of the TEFL variety) working for the British Council. One of their projects around the turn of the millennium was called 'Global Village', an ambitious plan to link classrooms of language learners across the globe in real time. It never really took off, but it's staggering to think how new and forward-thinking that idea sounded back then. I held several posts involving varying degrees of teaching and TEL development until I moved into the Higher Education sector around 5 years ago.

The real change in how I viewed the role of technology in learning probably came when I first started blogging. The ease with which I could create content and activities to share with students using a free blogging platform really spurred my interest in Web 2.0 technologies and their incredible potential.

I've been what's called a 'Blended Learning Facilitator' at London Metropolitan University for the past couple of years, which means trying to encourage and develop the ability of lecturers and other teaching staff to use technology more effectively to support the teaching and learning process. We've recently changed to Blackboard 9.1, so I've been doing a lot of support and resource development work for that. I'm also working on various projects to do with digital literacy and digital identity.

The big questions for me are:

  • How can teaching staff be encouraged to want to engage with technology in their teaching, rather than see it as some kind of irrelevant burden imposed on them from above?
  • How can we address the gaping chasm in the digital literacies of many teaching staff in the limited time available and effectively link their development to a CPD framework?
Looking forward to starting this course, although I'm already halfway through another MOOC (OU Open Education) so might well struggle to devote too much time to it...

Activity 8 - CRAAP

The title refers to an acronym which I came across while searching one of the repositories for content relating to the evaluation of online sources: Currency, Reliability, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose. Nice and easy to remember. The title could also (maybe somewhat harshly) refer to my first impressions of some of the OER repositories…

My short course in digital skills would be aimed at undergraduates, specifically to aid their transition into Higher Education. I’m looking for material on digital literacies (a very broad term obviously), and in this case two particular strands which are ‘being a digital learner’ and ‘managing digital identity’.

As I’ve already had some experience searching for this type of material, I went into the task thinking that it should be relatively easy to locate open resources on this topic. It was instructive to compare the resources I’m already aware of to what could be (easily and quickly) found on these 6 OER repositories.

   * I spent a lot of time on this and found the search process frustrating so the table below isn't very comprehensive and I haven't included any specific links..

Suitability (G/M/B)
Weeks 1 – 3
Being a Digital Learner
Finding & Evaluating online resources
(search skills and developing critical awareness of web content)
I was able to locate some good materials, a few of which I knew about already. However, the searches also turned up a lot of irrelevant content and many times took me to resources which no longer existed or had moved.
Creativity Tools
(moving from consumer to producer of content: video, audio, blogging, Prezi etc.)
For guides and How Tos, there are better sources out there without going through repositories (e.g. from YouTube itself, blogger, Prezi etc.)
Building your learning network
(e.g. using Twitter, social bookmarking, research portals etc.)
Some good content on Twitter, although a Google search turned up the same or better resources more quickly.
Weeks 4 & 5
Managing your Digital Identity
Staying safe online
A lot of the content which came up was aimed at schools and teenagers. Not so much came up for university students.
Managing your online identity

I’d run out of patience by this stage….

The disappointing results may have been partly due to inept search strategies on my part. As this is just a test exercise, perhaps I needed to give more thought to exactly what I was looking for and how to phrase my searches. It's important to think about:

  • What exactly am I looking for?
  • What kind of resources would support this kind of online delivery? 
  • Aside from the content, what are the learning processes and activities which would support my students' learning objectives? (it's not all about content...)
  • How much time am I prepared to spend adapting material I find?

For example, if I’m looking for specific tutorials on how to use a particular Web 2.0 tool, some of the best sources are provided by the companies themselves, so a simple link to the relevant content would suffice. (e.g a Blogger tutorial, Google's own Google Docs tutorials etc.) So the important consideration would be how I would like students to use this source of information and what processes/activities would support this.

A lot of the OERs returned appeared to be articles or case studies which, while they may be interesting, or thought-provoking, would not necessarily be any use for an online course. If I’m looking for a complete learning resource – perhaps a presentation, screencast, PDF guide, learning object etc. then it becomes more difficult to find something which fits the particular context I’m working in. For example, there are quite a few online Information Literacy tutorials provided by libraries, however, in many cases they will include information on searching their own specific library site, so at this point you also need to look at whether it is possible (and feasible) to adapt it for reuse in your context. 

In summary,  although there are undoubtedly good resources out there, it was so time-consuming to find these that it was hardly worth it, especially as what you do find will often still need repurposing.
A well worded Google search was far more effective – perhaps because I’m more used to using it. Also, I’ve found that a lot of the really good materials in this area, because of the nature of their subject matter, are in fact released under CC licenses anyway. I wouldn’t use Ariadne or Merlot again. OpenLearn and MIT I would use if I was looking for broader, less granular learning resources, perhaps for myself. 

I also have some reservations about these OER repositories as they seem to reinforce the idea that 'content is king' - all you need to do is find that elusive perfect resource that's out there somewhere and you can sit back and put your feet up. This, of course, is not the case.
It's perhaps worth asking whether people who are creating really good and up to date online resources now consider that they should put them in repositories? Or would they be more likely to tweet, upload to Slideshare, put it on a blog and reach out to their own community that way? Perhaps that is the key – for these kind of resources to be most effective they should build on pre-existing communities of practice and be aimed at smaller audiences, rather than putting everything into a one-size-fits-all database.

Final thought: I'm finding it difficult to filter out content going on the blog which is relevant to my own interests (Higher Education). Would it be an idea to add an extra tag (alongside #H817) to each blog post we make (for example #HigherEducation or  #secondary or #furthereducation) to make it easier to filter out blog posts which are most directly relevant to us? I know that it's also good to be exposed to ideas from other sectors, but at least this way we could start with the most directly relevant content...  - the Categories at the bottom seem too vague and numerous to be useful in this respect. We could even tag it with the Activity number as well.... Any thoughts?