Summative reflections and outlook for the future

It is about time to look back at the experiences of the last couple of months. Given that it has been rather an intensive period in my professional and family life, I feel I have made the most of the learning opportunities offered by the course. Above all, I value interactions within my PBL group and I am grateful for the concerted effort, enthusiasm and a sense of commitment, which on many occasions spurred me on to do a bit extra. At the same time, I can only wish we had interacted even more. In practical terms, I have learnt to appreciate forum discussions and have become aware of the overwhelming scope of available tools for asynchronous online collaborative work – some of them have worked better and some have turned out rather cumbersome and thus less effective. As for the synchronous communication via Adobe Connect or Twitter, my original skeptical perception about their functionality has somewhat deepened. Tweetchats, in particular, have very limited value in the context of online learning in my view and I am not going in the foreseeable future to rely on that medium in my professional practice.

With respect to my own development stimulated by educational activities offered throughout the course and the resulting group interactions, I would definitely like to emphasise two aspects in line with earlier thoughts. First of all, I have grown to appreciate the potential of a collaborative learning environment. Splitting workload, sharing information, discussing insights gained within given topics can be an effective way to deepen the familiarity with broad content within relatively short time. On the other hand, lack of critical evaluation, especially mediated by experts in the field but also group members, renders the acquired knowledge rather shallow. The recommended reading has encouraged us to focus on relevant points but still does not help me critically assess web resources on topics I have only limited insight into. In this regard, I am under the impression that PBL as such does not seem the most suitable format for the course. On its own, without the support of other activities except webinars, it may be sufficient for novice in the field to find their feet and get general overview but is unlikely to facilitate thorough and deep exploration. The PBL form adopted in this course required us to face scenarios without really understanding the fundamental issues involved, often without really being familiar with the underlying nomenclature. This top-down approach has obvious limitations.

The second relevant outcome that I would like to comment on in the context of my development boils down to the fact that I have definitely become more familiar or rather aware of the wealth of online tools supporting collaborative work, exchange of ideas and communication in a wide sense. This to great extent I owe to the large ONL community.

As far as my own teaching practice is concerned, I would certainly like to enhance it given my online learning experiences. First of all, I am going to consider different approaches to blended learning with moderate inclusion of pre-recorded lectures or with the support of existing MOOCs. Then, activities in the class are less of the online learning domain, though the ground could be prepared with the support of online collaborative learning tools. I would also like to make an attempt at an assessment scheme or rather an exercise (it is a high-risk initiative) that promotes bottom up contributions to the student evaluation, worked out in small groups with the help of some online platform. With my deep involvement as a teacher, I believe it is possible to make the PBL-like approach more fruitful. Finally, unlike the ideas mentioned above, which have no schedule or any timeline at the moment, I am committed to making the most of the new online Canvas platform to manage KTH courses and support dynamic online interaction with students.

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Change of the perspectives – some thoughts on the design of online activities for blended learning

Topic 4 has offered a valuable opportunity to look at online learning from another perspective as we were put in a teacher’s position rather than directly participating in online learning as students. This was a refreshing and relevant experience given our responsibilities as academics and future practitioners of online teaching. At the same time, the scenario we were confronted with made me realise massive challenges and potential traps involved in the design of online learning activities. I must admit enjoying an illuminating discussion that we had about the topic on the forum – it really seemed like a collaborative learning experience. Consequently, I consider a sense of community in online or blended learning practice to be particularly valuable – it really has potential to provide fertile ground for critical discussions (Vaughan et al., 2013). I am under the impression however that instigating favourable conditions and engaging a community in the critical discussion in the spirit of the “community of inquiry” framework (Lipman, 1991) requires the practitioners to design suitable teaching activities. My personal preference in this regard is to offer well-structured teaching support rather than a loose approach (Bates, 2016), where it is expected that that the engagement in a learning process will emerge intrinsically by the sheer power of interactions in the community of learners. Although I can imagine that a loose structure, where learning is dynamically driven bottom up by students, creates a good scope for building a sense of shared responsibility in the spirit of collaborative constructivism, I prefer that “teaching presence” manifests itself in facilitation of  a discourse, sometimes even in direct instructing, rather than giving up so much responsibility to students. This is also how my concept of scaffolding would be, i.e. facilitate learning as an expert and an engaged collaborator, and adjust the level of support dynamically based on the learner’s continuous development. In the context of online learning this approach would follow a process of e-moderation gradually changing as the students mature in line with the assumptions of the five-stage model (Salmon, 2013), where the development is organised into five steps. As a digression, I am under the impression that our ONL course follows a similar convention.

As regards the actual learning format and activities involved in blended courses, a so-called instructionally-designed approach based on a learning management system particularly appeals to me. However strange it sounds, the model seems to fit well with a constructive alignment framework (Biggs, 2011), where learning activities and assessment are aligned with the intended learning outcomes. Importantly, this framework has proven effective when designing standard courses at KTH so it acts as a sort of a safety net for online beginners or even more so for blended learning where different component have to be glued together based on some principles. I would still consider recorded lectures in the spirit of MOOCs to be a valuable component, not necessarily the main delivery, in this regard, particularly when combined with flipped classrooms. In some way, this helps building upon the existing resources when developing blended versions of the existing classical courses (Bates, 2016). My experiences with webinars are less positive in this regard.  I do not quite understand what educational value tweetchats have either.

Finally, I would like to air some of my accumulated thoughts on the online formula or component of blended learning environments. In the first place, I have been wondering about the motivation behind online learning beyond the rather obvious fact that it provides an opportunity for people around the world to connect and it thus facilitates access to education (also given its asynchronous nature). I have learnt to appreciate some forms of online learning to complement face-to-face educational experience and more rationally balance the resources or introduce variation (blended approach). In this light, I can appreciate the arguments about synergistic combination of synchronous face-to-face learning with asynchronous text-based communication in online mode (Bates, 2016). However, some of the online video discussions or recommended webinars still require synchronous participation. Also, it remains unclear to me why online learning activities are usually motivated by the scope they provide for innovation that has greater potential for engaging students than other forms of learning (even classroom based). I can definitely recognize innovative potential but I can also see it in face-to-face learning context. Another argument for online activities is the intrinsic connection to IT tools that lend themselves for more enhanced interaction, collaboration, exchange of information. I have a subjective sceptical opinion in this regard, which is likely due to my ignorance. I can imagine that if students have been through many online learning experiences they build their capacity to master technology to the extent where it no longer is a burden but advantage over more traditional forms of face-to-face communication (provided that this is not limited by spatio-temporal constraints). In this respect, the argumentation that online learning enhances the process of familiarisation with e-technologies crucial in professional life (Bates, 2016) is convincing but not necessarily in terms of formal education, where learning outcomes are usually formulated along different directions. Finally, although I agree that online practice can facilitate the development of independent learning and knowledge management skills (Bates, 2016), I remain concerned about threats and risks here. I am convinced at the same time that appropriate course design with adequate teaching presence and control/verification mechanisms of formative nature can minimise these risks. This is however the entire new discussion worth a separate blog.

In conclusion, I recognize the unique value for online learning as a way to either combat challenges resulting from spatio-temporal constraints or introduce an engaging variation in the context of blended learning, where the resources of the face-to-face component have to be carefully balanced. If we consider the acquisition of extra IT skills (to strengthen digital literacy) as part of learning outcomes then online learning is an attractive and desirable component of such course design.

References

Bates, T (2016). The 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online for Faculty and Instructors.

Biggs, J.B. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in education.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Salmon, G (2013) The Five Stage Model. Retrieved 2016 November 8 from http://www.gillysalmon.com/five-stage-model.html

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press. Chapter 1 “Conceptual framework”.