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”.

Networked collaborative learning in online environments – what’s the trick?

To start with, I must admit that I find the current topic of networked collaborative learning to be particularly captivating in the ONL course. This is probably due to my longstanding interest in any kind of networks and their emergent phenomena. It is quite fascinating to think about new opportunities that open up when education is put in the context of exchanging, sharing or even co-creating (Brindley et al., 2009) knowledge in a network.

Networks in the realm of academic life are not a new phenomenon. I am under the impression however that they had been until recent times mostly exploited in research rather than education. Scientists realised rather a long time ago that lack of flexible exchange and spread of ideas in research communities organised in dynamic networks would inhibit progress. At the same time, as researchers we often experience how ineffective certain aspects of communication in such networks can be and the online context is not necessarily to blame. I have personally mixed feelings about the effectiveness of various networks I have happened to be part of, particularly those built around the joint need to acquire funding. My experiences range from successful cooperation between people dedicated to their own agendas and goals to dysfunctional configurations of small research communities meant to serve a common purpose. I am under the impression that the current system of incentives in the world of academic research does not necessarily support the intrinsic emergence of healthy networks. Right, I had better put a dot here and move on to networked collaborations in education-related contexts.

Most of my educational experiences in the realm of collaborative learning date back to my student (both at undergraduate and postgraduate level) days and rather relate to group project work or, in some sense, to communities of learners (e.g. a community of PhD students collaboratively working on formulating problems rather than solving them, in a different sense than Siemens’s (2005) perception of a community as an advanced form of learner-learner interaction). In my general understanding of a more network-like configuration is that it tends to be more agile (adaptively reconfigurable to address varying goals) than static groups. The only dynamic aspect in my student networking practice concerned occasional and short-lasting intensified exchange of information in small clusters consisting of two or maximum three students. As far as the online context of our collaborative environment is concerned, in most cases it was limited to sharing ideas by means of googledocs or Skype discussions – not too impressive. The most relevant part of that experience though, looking back from today’s perspective, was a sense of purpose and value shared in the group. At the same time, the driving force behind those collaborative attempts originated from outside, it was imposed by the structure of a specific course or study programme. So, the motivation did not really have intrinsic factors, though it was certainly fuelled by some emergent positive feelings that might have as well revolved around social aspects. For this reason, there does not seem much point in continuing this thread and I would rather move on to reflecting how we can contribute to building a collaborative learning environment in our professional teaching practice. Here I purposefully make a distinction from certain forms of personal learning networks that focus on informal learning. My rationale does not in any way stem from lack of appreciation for the role of networks in informal learning. It is rather dictated by a more challenging nature of embedding networked structures in the context of formal education (Anderson, 2008).

Let’s consider some of the proposed strategies to motivate our students to engage in online collaborative learning where they form their own networks and small groups of learners. The online aspect brings another challenging dimension to these considerations. To start with, it seems vital that students become convinced about the value and relevance of team work (Brindley et al., 2009). Without this appreciation it is going to be hard to make online collaborators deeply involved. One way to obtain the desirable effect would be to make the participants directly experience the advantages they can draw from networks of other learners. For example, they could be confronted with a relatively complex multi-faceted problem on their own in the beginning of the course and then they could be slowly but surely urged to exchange their observations, ideas, solutions in online groups. Just like in research environments, there is a good chance that learners will appreciate synergistic effects and invest efforts in connecting with each other, thereby effectively self-organising in network structures at multiple scales depending on their own goals and a wider agenda they can become part of. Realisation how much more ambitious objectives can be pursued and, hopefully, attained in the end in comparison with an individual approach would likely be an eye opener to the vast potential of collaborative learning.

A different perspective on incentives for online networked collaboration in a course was proposed by Swan et al. (2006). In the spirit of constructive alignment, they stressed the relevance of assessment as a way to shape collaborative attitudes in online environments. I admit that I find this rationale rather convincing, especially if two aspects are considered. First, a collaborative approach to constructing or contributing to an assessment scheme could serve as part of learning activities. Second, assessment could provide an extra set of incentives and a sense of direction for learners to engage in what is designed as online collaborative learning activities. A challenge to build an evaluation scheme by a network of learners themselves looks quite innovative, though it provokes a dose of scepticism. Therefore I strongly recommend reading Swan et al.’s (2006) contribution to formulate your own opinion.s

Naturally, a task set for collaborative learners has to be appropriate. In this context the dimension of online work seems more challenging than the collaborative attribute itself. It is rather straightforward to pose problems that can be effectively handled by a group with synergistic effects. On the other hand, I find it far more challenging to ensure that the online form of working in a group naturally lends itself to a given problem domain. In many cases, online networking is perceived as a burden rather than an opportunity. Therefore, however trivial it sounds, I think the importance of identifying a right task for online collaborative learning, which truly benefits from advantages of online format irrespective of software tools, should be clearly spelled out. From my perspective, the key issue is an asynchronous pattern of communication between learners and opportunities to transcend geographical limitations in building more diverse and interest-oriented networks.

Finally, a bit I consider particularly relevant in this puzzle of factors paving the way for successful online collaborative learning is a teacher. Does the teacher’s role end with clarifying the purpose, aim and scope for collaborative work? How visible should the external moderator be in a group of learners?  I am under the impression that a series of well balanced moderating interventions would be very helpful. On the other hand, in a truly collaborative network one could expect that feedback could be internally generated just as the final assessment could be shaped by the learners themselves. Maybe the role of a facilitator can be rotated in a network of learners without the need to rely on external teachers. Still, I feel that “an invisible hand” of the teacher could tremendously facilitate this difficult process of starting and, particularly, maintaining effective networked collaboration in a flexible dynamic online environment, requiring a great deal of adaptation from relatively inexperienced participants.

Any thoughts on that would be much appreciated……

 

References

Anderson, T. (2008). Teaching in an online learning context. In The theory and practice of online learning. Athabasca University press.

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: Learning theory for the digital age.  International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1).

Swan, K., Shen, J., & Hiltz, S.R. (2006). Assessment and collaboration in online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1), 45-62.

Topic 2 – disheveled reflections on MOOCs

Another week of the ONL course has led us to collaboratively investigate the second topic. We followed the same organization pattern as before so we escaped much of the confusion this time. So far the most effective approach has been to synchronize our efforts towards a FISh document and the final presentation, thus limiting video as well as other forms of lively online interaction to minimum. This does not help my sceptical perception of PBL as a form of online learning but, most importantly, we get the job done, have some fun and take some satisfaction from the end product, maybe partly also from the process.

This time we collectively agreed to focus on MOOCs. I must admit that before joining the course I considered MOOCs, from my digitally illiterate perspective, as the bread and butter of online learning and in some way the term worked like a magnet attracting me to the course. In my field the concept has received a lot of attention since an open course in Artificial Intelligence was introduced at Stanford University. This set a trend that many institutions followed by developing a wide range of courses in Computer Science with varying success largely depending on the reputation, even more than the actual quality. Nevertheless, MOOCs are by far the most common online learning topic discussed among colleagues in my department. According to some, MOOCs can pose a threat or competition to formal education even though it is free of charge in Sweden.  In this context, a perspective of MOOCs as complement to traditional teaching (Weller, 2014) particularly appeals to me. A blended course design where online content facilitates teaching/learning activities in a class sounds promising, especially for large courses. One specific idea would be to designate some of the lectures as open online resources for students to follow at their convenience. Then, the time physically spent with students could be more effectively turned into a learning experience. After all, one-way communication conveyed from the perspective of the whiteboard is increasingly reported as an inefficient use of time (Gupta, 2007), similar way online lectures can be but at least not at the high cost of the precious interactive time with students.

Another issue concerning MOOCs as a phenomenon in online education is their quality. Since there seems to be an overall problem with student retention (Weller & Anderson, 2013; Weller, 2014), and even with the way it is quantified (Weller, 2014), the course quality does not necessarily have to be reflected in the number or proportion of active participants. It is rather a sense of support, facilitation, inspiration or further learning incentives the course provides or not that is related to the measure of success. How to gauge that effect given a wide range of students’ attitudes is another question. Any ideas?

Irrespective of how the quality is defined or subsequently measured, implications of inferior quality can be rather damaging (Weller & Anderson, 2013; Weller, 2014). I must admit not really reflecting deeply on that before – losing reputation can reverberate more globally due to the nature of MOOC distribution. This can certainly be an inhibitory factor in making a decision about taking a leap in the dark.

All in all, MOOCs appear as a disruptive technology – they seem to underlie one of the major breakthroughs in open access and online learning. At the same time, despite the huge educational potential they offer, not necessarily as a standalone but rather as a supportive teaching/learning form, MOOCs may imply a lot of risks too. It is not enough to display a generous attitude to openness and share any teaching content. With MOOCs one of the major responsibilities is to secure the top quality since otherwise a serious blow can be dealt to the reputation of an individual or her/his institution. Besides the economic sustainability issues, which should rather be addressed at an institutional level, I perceive the risk of failing with MOOCs to be a critical factor that everyone hast to consider individually.

 

References

Gupta, B.L. (2007) Management of competency based learning. New Dehli, India: Concept Publishing Company.

Weller, M., & Anderson, T. (2013) Digital resilience in higher education. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 16(1), 53.

Weller, M. (2014) Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press.

Topic 1 – first PBL online experience

The first two weeks of the course were challenging to say the least. I was part of the leading group responsible for organizing activities around Topic 1. Considering that hardly any of us had had previous experience with collaborative work online I think we performed rather well as a group and did our job well. In many ways this exercise reminded me of collaborative writing a scientific grant proposal except that we knew little about the topic so we ended up arbitrarily assigning pieces of work to everyone, naturally in the course of discussion. In that respect, it was rewarding to see the involvement from the group members and commitment to the final mini-project outcome.

As for the technicalities that we all had to plough through a myriad of links, webpages, shared documents etc. To some extent, the multitude of communication channels turned out to be overwhelming, thus inhibiting the actual  communication within the group in the beginning. Connecting online to discuss the progress has not so far in my view facilitated collaboration, it is what we do offline that matters in the end. I am curious if this is going to change in the course of events ahead of us. On the other hand, admittedly, seeing each other online helps us build congenial atmosphere in the group, which I enjoy and appreciate a lot.

These thoughts on effective communication in the process of collaborative learning bring me to another point. Having read some of the recommended literature (Savin-Baden and Wilkie, 2006; Savin-Baden, 2014) I could not resist skepticism about the suitability of problem-based learning (PBL) for online scenarios. I do not necessarily see how the online learning setup facilitates or enhances classical face-to-face PBL. Interestingly, PBL in itself  is not a well represented form of learning at universities. I could imagine that PBL would be suitable to complement more traditional educational approaches. For example, it could build upon fundamental knowledge transmitted by a teacher (here I do not see an immediate need for students to search by themselves for these fundamental aspects of the knowledge domain they plunge into in a given course) and help students relate or apply that knowledge (thus extend it) in some specific problem-oriented context. At a technical university I could then imagine that the first teaching process mentioned could be moved to the online world in the interest of time as it does not rely so drastically on the live interaction with the teacher, peers or even didactical material. Still, the online value of PBL remains questionable from my point of view. I am expecting however that I will learn to appreciate it throughout the course as my understanding of the PBL online processes grows.

Trying to summarise my position in the digital/online learning environment I must admit feeling as a stranger (“digital immigrant” (Prensky, 2001)) but at the same time I am not fully convinced about any added value of moving towards the resident status (White and Le Cornu, 2011). I could not really say what that status would imply since as a “visitor” I already rely on internet tools (googledocs, skype, messengers, cloud services for storing research relevant information, literature etc.) in my daily research and teaching (rather supervision) practice. Yet I am far from being fully immersed in this world. What adds another dimension to this experience? I am not quite sure, really, it is a collaborative learning aspect in the spirit of PBL.

 

References

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.On the Horizon. 9 (5): 1–6.

Savin-Baden, M. (2014) Problem-based learning: New constellations for the 21stCentury. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching  25 (3/4)  197-219  Preprint Savin-Baden JECT (3)

Savin-Baden, M. & Wilkie, K. (2006) The challenge of using problem-based learning online. In: Problem-based learning online. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

White, D. & Le Cornu, A. (2011) Visitors and residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9).