Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Catching up with OCTEL Week 5 - A new role for VLEs?

More than just a filing cabinet?
        I’ve been away for a little while, but had a little unfinished business from Week 5. I wanted  to contribute to the general discussion in Activity 5.2 with some thoughts about VLEs, in particular:
       - What are the wider implications of enforced platforms and technologies for Higher Education? 

VLEs. Or LMSs. Or MLEs. Or MLSs. Or whatever you want to call them (does it matter?)
We know that VLEs have aroused strong feelings since they became the standard online learning platform in most universities - see, for example: The VLE is dead at ALT-C 2009.  Despite the frequent criticisms levelled at them, it would be hard to find a UK HEI that doesn’t have some kind of VLE such as Moodle, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Sakai etc., and for all the talk of PLEs (Personal Learning Environments), until there is a coherent alternative, it seems that they are here to stay, at least in the near future. But that’s OK! In my view, VLEs are not, in themselves, a bad thing, but they are often not used very effectively. Perhaps all we need to do is re-evaluate the role they play in teaching and learning within Higher Education?

A frequent complaint about VLEs is that they are used solely as content dumps – the tutor / lecturer simply dumps a load of PDFs, Powerpoints, maybe a course handbook, into the relevant area of the VLE and that’s it, job done, there’s your e-learning right there.  Yet Blackboard and Moodle both have a host of other features designed to encourage interaction, dialogue, peer feedback, reflection, group work and other activities and processes which could be said to belong to social constructivist pedagogical approaches. Used well, these can really enhance the learning process and engage learners. The trouble is, they rarely seem to be used well. There are many reasons for this – staff don’t see the need for it, don’t have time, training isn't provided across the board, staff may be on temporary contracts and so on. But what if we were to rethink the role of the VLE, both for the educator and the student?

Here’s how I think VLEs could be used:

For 1st year students the VLE would provide a safe online space to interact with their lecturers and other students. It would serve as a type of sandbox in which they could develop new skills – e.g. their reflective writing skills through writing a blog, commenting on other students’ work, creating and uploading a presentation, image or video to a group space for example. The VLE could fulfil a similar function for less experienced staff, allowing them to develop their own digital literacies, alongside their students. The advantages of the VLE over external tools at this stage would be:

·        A private space to develop digital skills related to a student's subject
·        Capacity for tutors to monitor and where appropriate grade student interactions online and provide prompt feedback
·        Making more use of communication tools within the VLE and expanding its use beyond content repository
·        Reducing the risks associated with online interactions for less experienced staff and students (e.g. data protection, copyright, confidentiality and so on)

As students progress through their learning journey, into their second and final year or on to postgraduate study, the aim should be to ‘wean’ them off the VLE and help them to develop their own personal learning environments and networks. Digitally literate staff should be able to help students build an online profile and identity, develop their ability to critically evaluate and also produce content for the web  and thereby bring them away from the sheltered environment of the VLE into the ‘real’ world. This is where they might, for example, build an e-portfolio (not in the VLE) which they would still be able to access after leaving the university, perhaps begin writing a blog on WordPress or Blogger or starting using Twitter and so on. The point is, the further they go in their university career, the more they should be encouraged to move away from the safe world of the VLE towards creating their own PLE.  Of course, the VLE would still have a role, for sharing files, grading functions for contributory assessments, integration of Turnitin, announcements and so on, but many of the more communicative and social functions of a Personal Learning Environment and the opportunities for networking with wider communities of practice around the world could gradually be built up using external tools and thus preparing the students better for life after graduation.

Equally, the more staff are able to develop and demonstrate their own digital literacies, the greater role they might have in developing other staff and students digital literacies outside the 'walled garden' which is the university VLE. – staff who are less digitally literate could be encouraged and supported to develop their skills within the VLE. (some might say that if you can actually use Blackboard effectively, the rest should be easy…. – especially the Text Editor in SP8…)  By developing their ability to use various tools inside the VLE (e.g. blogs, discussion boards, multimedia etc) they may be able to enhance their skills and begin to experiment with creating their own Personal Learning Environments and networks and therefore be in a position to model these skills and help their students to develop them.

For me, this type of digital literacy development is crucial for both staff and students, but we can’t just expect it to happen of its own accord – it takes time and commitment, and since we have these expensive environments available to us, why not try to use them productively to provide a protective 'nursery' or sandbox for our staff and students while at the same time acknowledging that they are suitable for some purposes and not for others and that, as a Higher Education establishment, we have a duty to prepare students for life after university and that some of the skills and literacies they need are not catered for within a university VLE? In other words, it doesn't have to be one or the other (VLE or PLE), but can be both, only perhaps we need to think about how we use the VLE a bit more......

* I probably haven't explained this very well, and am probably being idealistic but hey-ho, that's what it's all about, right?

Thursday, 16 May 2013

ocTEL Week 5 - Learning Styles

I’m currently involved in running professional development sessions for staff looking at how they can use various technologies, including our VLE (Blackboard) in their teaching and development. The aim of the sessions is to showcase what the various technologies can be used for and try to stimulate interest and enthusiasm among teaching staff, rather than ‘click-after-me’ style training sessions.

The latest session I ran was about Developing a Personal Learning Network, so I'll look at that in relation to learning styles. As staff are so time-poor, we're currently experimenting with giving a one-hour session which is largely aimed at showcasing examples, giving the rationale for using certain technologies and discussion of the issues, followed by a 'free practice' practical session which staff can choose to stay on for if they want to try things out and get support while they do so. The session is also supported by a website and a Blackboard module which contains examples of the technology tools covered in the session, links to further information (both theoretical and practical), a Discussion Forum and so on, which allows staff to catch up, fill in the gaps as and when they have time. 

For the learning styles task, I tried to breakdown the four types of learning style (diverging, assimilating, converging, accommodating) outlined by Kolb into the types of learning approach/activity related to it, then thought about how I try to include these in my sessions.

(I’m uneasy about pigeon-holing individuals into one of these specific learning styles. In my view, many learners display different traits which could belong to any of these styles, depending on what they’re learning, who they’re learning with, their level of motivation etc. I also notice that Kolb has recently expanded these 4 learning styles to 9 (Initiating, Experiencing, Imagining, Reflecting, Analyzing, Thinking, Deciding, Acting and Balancing) which makes me wonder what happened to the original 4 mentioned below…

Having said that, despite my suspicion of learning styles generally, I do think there's some merit in thinking about learning styles, and trying to identify learners who have more of one kind of style than another, even if only to remind ourselves that when it comes to learning, one size doesn't fit all.

Developing a Personal Academic Network

LEARNING STYLE                               ACTIVITY/APPROACH

Look at things from different perspectives
Watch rather than do
Gather information
Work in groups
Personal feedback

·        Start session with brief discussion in pairs / small groups to find out what they know and their ideas on the subject
·        Find out who uses which types of Social Media and what they use them for
·        Demonstrate my own Personal Learning Network

Logical approach
Clear explanation
Abstract concepts

·        Small section devoted to how to use a particular technology – e.g. Twitter, Diigo etc (followed up after initial one hour session)
·        Explain rationale behind building your own PLN and how it can help expand access to research and expertise
·        Provide links to further reading/theory in module and on website
·        Diagram of my PLN

Technical tasks
Work with practical applications

·        Set up a tool during the session, or, if short of time, set aside time after session for questions/hands-on working with tools
·        Allow participants to try setting up instance of tools themselves and provide support where necessary

Practical approach
New challenges
Gut instinct
Work in teams
Set targets

·        Discussion Forum and Groups set up in Blackboard module to support session
·        Allow time after session for hands-on practice setting up/using tools (they might need less help)
·        Ask participants which tools they aim to use and to report back in next session

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Ramblings of an ocTEL junkie (Week 4)

This post is trying not to turn into a rant…

… it combines my thoughts on activities 4.1 and 4.3 for ocTEL Week 4.

4.1. Compare some resources (Khan Academy, eLearning examples, iEthics game)
4.3. Look at tools for creating online learning resources (Xerte, Glomaker, Camtasia, CMaps, Screencast-o-matic)

It would be very difficult not to be aware of Khan Academy with all the hype and plaudits and the money being thrown at it. On the surface, it seems like a great idea - create thousands of videos and quizzes to help people around the world to learn (as long as they have decent internet connections). The Khan Academy’s mission is “to provide a world class education for anyone, anywhere.” This is similar to some of the lines coming out of the xMOOC providers (e.g. Coursera: “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.”) The basic premise of giving access to learning materials to people who might not otherwise have it, via the internet, and perhaps helping them to improve their learning situation is admirable, and when there is extensive research documenting the concrete improvements in people’s circumstances brought about by these unaccredited learning paths, that will be something to celebrate. But I don’t think we should get carried away and start talking about changing the world just yet. After all, is it really true to say that a ‘world-class education’ can be had simply by watching a few online videos and taking a few quizzes?

Khan Academy - Multi-step linear inequalities
Pedagogically, most of the material on the Khan Academy appears to exactly replicate transmission-model chalk ‘n’ talk style lectures – surely one of the strengths of the internet is that it offers us so many different ways to access information, communicate and collaborate and opportunities to break away from the more formal, lecture-based educational paradigms?

And if we’re trying to encourage our students to have a critical eye and learn to evaluate reliability and value of online sources, what does it say if we recommend they watch videos where we don’t even know who the author/speaker is, for example, this video on the French Revolution (maybe I just don’t know where to look?) Having said that, expanding learning opportunities to greater numbers of people around the world has to be a good thing. Also, it may well be useful to be able to point students in the direction of these videos as supplementary resources, as long as we’re also teaching them to question what they find and synthesise information from a variety of sources.

Next, I tried a few of the Elearning Examples e-learning games. Game-based learning has been the next best thing for a long time now. For example, look at the Horizon (HE) Report in 2006 and you’ll see ‘Educational Gaming’ – Time to adoption 2 – 3 years. Look at the 2013 (HE) report and you’ll see ‘Games and Gamification’ – Time to adoption 2 – 3 years. In my view, this underlines the fact that with a few exceptions, gamification of learning is something that is often talked about but rarely implemented in any coherent way (in Higher Education). Yes, it would be fantastic to harness the motivation and energy that people often experience when taking part in and completing games, or the social aspects of MMOGs, but creating quality gaming experiences generally costs a lot of money, something which isn’t exactly sloshing around in Higher Education at the moment.

The games available on the link we were given seemed to have little to do with education and I couldn’t work out what I was supposed to be learning by doing them. I tried something called ‘NYT brain games’ but none of them worked. I tried a dinosaur fighting game but this just involved pressing arrow keys and ‘z’ as fast as possible. I tried ‘The Creative Mystic’ and it turned out that it was designed to advertise a product. At that point I gave up.

For me, the iEthiCs simulation has more obvious value and I can see how it could be a useful tool for staff and students involved in medical ethics education. I have seen other examples of gamified learning which I also think are worthwhile: e.g. The WW1 Poetry Archive in SL , Inanimate Alice , or Preloaded – but these all take a lot of money, time and expertise to produce. Not quite the same as a Hot Potatoes quiz…  With a background of language teaching, I’ve been used to ‘gamifying’ my teaching practice for many years – making activities competitive, quizzes, word searches and that sort of thing. The question for me is, how can we bring the positive aspects of game-based learning into our practice in relatively easy ways without needing to be a developer to do so? And is it really worth our while trawling through endless badly-produced and or irrelevant e-learning games in an effort to motivate our learners? What is the best way to find examples of game-based learning which we might actually want to use?

WW1 Poetry Simulation in SL (Oxford University)
We also need to beware of making assumptions about what learners want. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon by saying we need to build in elements of game-based learning to make engaging and effective learning materials, but when did we last stop to ask OUR learners what they find engaging and effective?

In the final activity we were asked to look at various tools which could be used to create learning resources. I had already used some of these (Camtasia, Screencastomatic) and generally found them quite straightforward to use. I had a look at Xerte. If you want to create a learning object with all the bells and whistles this is probably an excellent tool to help you do that job. My one issue with this (and GloMaker which I’m familiar with) is that many lecturers simply won’t have time to develop the required skills to use these tookits properly. A combination of lack of time and lack of digital literacies means that these type of tools will probably only ever be used by a very small proportion of teaching staff. As an example, if we take an introductory paragraph about Xerte online toolkits:

 “Xerte Online Toolkits 2.0 is a server-based suite of tools for content authors. Elearning materials can be authored quickly and easily using browser-based tools, with no programming required. Content can be delivered to all devices using HTML5.” Many teaching staff I know would look at terms like ‘server-based suite of tools’ or 'HTML 5' and say "Eh?". Also, as it says, the toolkit is designed for content authors – in an ideal world, teaching staff would work alongside learning technologists who could help them with this, but this isn’t always (often?) the case.

Apologies for straying off task, and raising more questions than answers.. ;-)

ocTEL Week 4 - If you only do one thing..

I’ve decided to ‘freestyle’ this week as I’ve just been looking into OER repositories as part of the H817 OU Open Education MOOC. In the spirit of reusability, I’m linking to those blog posts here: I looked at creating a mini-course based on resources sourced from some of these repositories, and also found the concept of Little vs Big OER quite interesting.

To summarise my thoughts about OER repositories, I’ve found them very inconsistent. While I’m sure that they all have a few gems hidden away, I experienced some kind of difficulty with all of them – broken links, irrelevant results returned, inability to preview content, packages which I couldn’t download or did not seem to work, bad quality materials, obscure labelling and so on. Some of this was undoubtedly my own lack of experience using the repositories and I guess I would be able to use them more effectively with practice – the problem is, if the initial experience with a resource bank is frustrating and wastes my time, it is unlikely I will return or spend the time learning how to use it more effectively. In my view, one problem is that they spread themselves too thin, trying to cover every discipline – if there was an OER repository specifically for my area of interest then I’d probably persevere with it. As it is, a well-targeted Google search still seems a better option.

I revisited YouTube and investigated whether using the ‘Filters’ on my search would enable me to find relevant resources quickly.

Searching for the term “digital identity” (following on from the activity I started in Week 3) I applied the filters ‘this year’ & ‘creative commons’ and this reduced the results to 18. Some of them were bafflingly irrelevant (e.g. building Windows 8 UIs??), but there was some good stuff in there as well, and some names I recognised from previous research I’d done. Interestingly, a TED talk about digital identity came up which didn’t appear when I used the same search term in the TED search box. So it looks like, for the moment, Google (YouTube) is the clear winner in all this…

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Octel Week 3: What is learning? + Activity 3.1

CC-BY-SA: Bill Moseley

This week, we were asked to:

Here are a couple of examples: 

Know that: 
I went to a photography exhibition and learned that in Ethiopia, in the 13th century, churches were carved out of rock.
I learnt the meaning of ‘heuristics’ – this is one of those words that I’ve frequently come across, but always forget what it means. Therefore, it’s probably fair to say that I haven’t really learnt it and will probably soon forget. Which is what Google’s for right? (my learning resides in the machine…)

Know how: 
I went to a bicycle maintenance workshop and refreshed my knowledge of how to maintain brakes, check for chain wear and so on. This type of thing is available online through numerous articles and YouTube videos, but I found that going to a physical space, seeing somebody going through the processes on the bike in front of me and having the ability for hands-on practice improved the experience and made me more likely to retain and build on what I learnt.

Know how + knowing in action:
Being involved in a couple of MOOCs, I’m constantly learning something at the moment. If I sit down for an hour or two to browse content links, read other participants’ posts, look at the Twitter feed and read a few forum posts then this is all part of the learning process. But to answer the question ‘How did you go about learning it?’ is more difficult. Looking at the Week 2 learning outcomes, I should now be able to define, identify and propose various things, which is I guess what I was trying to do with my previous blogpost.

As for this week’s activities, I’m being asked to describe and critique, situate, design and recognise. I’ve been skim reading some of the learning theory resources, quickly rejecting some as irrelevant or uninteresting to me and focusing in more depth on those that seem more pertinent and useful. I read through and make notes, building on what I think I know already, being exposed to new ideas and trying to relate these to my own experience and prior knowledge. The next step will be to share these and hope to benefit from other participants views and contributions about them, and thus continuing to refine and build on my own knowledge.

To give a concrete example of this, I’ll go on to Activity 3.1 ‘Theories of active learning’.

How did I choose which theory to look at?

If it is the case that “it is the goal of the learner that is central in considering what is learned.” (Savery & Duffy, 2001), then it’s probably worth asking how I chose which theory to look at. I wanted to look at some of the more recent theories related to learning, but I’ve been reading a fair bit around Connectivism recently so decided to discount that option. I didn’t see the benefit of going over the same old behaviourist, cognitivist, constructivist paradigms and I clicked on some of the other links and just didn’t like the look of them. I found the PBL, Enquiry-Based Learning and Communities of Practice links interesting, but in the end I decided to look at a theory which I’d heard a bit about, but hadn’t looked into in detail – Heutagogy.

Blaschke (2012) defines heutagogy in the following way:

“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).”

This seems to resonate with my own experiences of learning in a MOOC environment. I do feel that the emphasis for learning is very much on me, the learner, and that this is an active process where I am deciding which activities to engage in and when, who I engage with and also one in which I consider the way I’m learning and build up my meta-cognitive awareness. This puts it very much at odds with the current models prevalent in Higher Education, which still largely rely on transmission models.

In terms of being aware of my own learning, as I was reading an article on heutagogy (Does Pedagogy still rule?)I realised that some of my assumptions were being challenged and that some of my thinking was altering as a result. For example, the author describes how the current context of high student – staff ratios and the amount of content in many courses is leading, if anything, to a move back towards transmission models of education as a coping mechanism. Heutagogy is therefore not so relevant to an undergraduate context which is heavily dependent on conveying a set amount of information which then needs to be assessed in reasonably standard and transparent ways. This idea that the current Higher Education context is actually a barrier to the development of more progressive education strategies (and heutagogy is particularly appropriate for a Web 2.0 type environment) and may result in a shift back towards more traditional models was a very interesting, and also worrying, idea. This, in turn, led me to wonder:
If this MOOC was assessed, what would the assessment look like? Does the cMOOC model not lend itself very well to assessment? Is it therefore more relevant to lifelong learning and CPD than to more traditional Higher Education contexts?  Would embedding assessment in this type of course necessarily affect/change the type of activities suggested? Lots of questions, fewer answers, but then I guess that's the learning process.

References: See Diigo Octel group

Activity 25 - the last one!

So, a little late as I've had a very busy week at work, but here's my final task for this course. Sadly, it's not as creative as some of the great contributions I've seen, but never mind. It's about what I've found the most interesting aspect of openness in education while doing this course...