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Tough Love

How we learn in an ideal realisation of constant growth expressed as riding a thermal

The Learning Thermal


Every day, as a Coursera Mentor, I receive notification from them in the form of an email indicating which student queries in the common forum require a response; every day I respond to one or two and in due course I get feedback. It is always a pleasure that my reassurance, prompt or suggestion is welcome. Having done this for 7 months I recognise a pattern: students (as I did) worry about assignments, which are of two types: peer reviews of submitted work and graded quizzes (typically around 12-16 carefully crafted questions). Both are tightly controlled: as a student you must review three pieces of work submitted by others (selected or offered from a rolling list as your cohort moves through the course) and to pass the course in its entirety, the quiz grade required, individually and collectively is high, certainly over 60%. 

Having done four courses, each with several increasingly demanding parts, I know how much anxiety these can cause, more so where I have paid a fee to be part of the assessed cohort so that I get the most learning out of it and gain a certificate too. We don’t like being judged or criticised, so peer reviews need to be done with sensitivity and completely fairly. The instructions  for assignments are specific: whether an essay, proposal or project write up, or another piece of submitted work such as a photograph, the factors that will result in marks being awarded and carefully spelled out. The student must then trust his or her work to a fellow student. Being a global and open platform Coursera attracts everybody who has access to the Internet: young, old, English a second or third language, at High School or a post-grad (even doctoral research students boosting their ego or doing a refresher). Some people take the peer review more seriously than others: you’d be unlucky if more than one student gave no more than a cursory review and worse, if they marked your work down on a trivial technicality (or plainly get their review wrong). On the better courses, and all I have experienced on five different Coursera courses (each having between One and Five substantial parts) the multiple-choice quizzes are well written and thought through; what is more, when you redo the quiz if your score is too low you will at least find the questions are in a different order, and nay find some questions are even different – you can’t ‘game it’ by repeating the test over and over trying different combinations of responses. Students new to this kind of learning experience and to opening their minds (and to some their soul) to strangers, get agitated: they panic, they fret, they even become inpatient and angry. The educators who ‘wrote’ the course or the platform itself can come in for a lot of Schtick. 
Standing back from it all, were I advising a group of educators about to embark on the creation of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), I’d advise ‘tough love’ – some educators, through experience, and by their nature, might be like this anyhow. It does no one any favours to produce a course where any component may be deemed at best ‘edutainment’ and at w0rst ‘amateurish’ or plain wrong.

‘Tough love’ gets results and in the longer term is what the student and educator wants. In a different field, coaching swimmers, something that grew out of helping out at a club where my kids were learning to swim competively, it has taken me a while (over ten years) through training and experience, to deliver ‘tough love’ whether the swimmer is 8 or 18. Unlike in an online course, in these live situations I can respond to strengths and weaknesses, spot failings and go back. Crucially where something isn’t getting the results I need I can call upon a collection of approaches. They cannot progress until they can do a thing correctly. Likewise, online, the smarter courses, blocking the way to advancing, will send a student back to review a part of the programme that ought to help them with an answer they are failing to get right. Better still the student is offered a different way of seeing the problem; the better courses providing more than just a reading list – they link to a specific paper, or book, or video. 

A few times, taking a series of courses on ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ I became stuck and had to go back over two weeks of material and find a different person giving a different explanation before the ‘penny would drop’ – it really was a moment of enlightenment, and getting the quiz score from something like 4/16 to 11/16 gave me such a great sense of achievement that I persevered until I settled for 15/16. I have to trust the designers and writers of the course than 16/16 is possible : students can get online and blame the course, not themselves, for being unable to ‘meet the grade’. Shame on the educators if they have made a mistake. Best practice is, in any case, to use information on any sticking point and go and fix it. It was one of the earliest findings shared by Daphne Keller in her TED lecture on the first course offered on Coursera that with tens of thousands of students the data would identify spots where the educators weren’t teaching something very well – too many students were making the same error to blame them so they went in and fixed it.

 I like the idea of building a course as best you can and then using the learning stats and student experience to go back and fix problems and make improvements: you build an obstacle course for the brain, but it is no good if too many people fail where they shouldn’t. Nor is it of any value to make it so easy to render the course worthless. I know Courses, entire platforms, that are educationally valueless ‘edutainment’, PR for the educational institution –  a taster of a campus based course. learning is not viewing: a timeline that indicates that you have clicked through 50% of the material is not worthy of a pass. Being flippant with a formative quiz is not funny; I’ve seen ‘educational’ quizzes where, like in a TV gambit aimed to get tens of thousands of punters wasting £1 on a punt the right answer is blindingly obvious from a choice of three. And paying to study at postgraduate level where 40% is the pass rate is so indulgent as to be diminishing of the institution.

The ‘toughest love’ is the examination hall; the ‘toughest test’ the real world. Would you want to be seen by a doctor whose course work in training repeatedly only scrapped above a 40% grade? And if the ‘learning’ was so easy did much go in and stick? 

At school, and since, the educators I have most admired were always the toughest: their demands and expectations were high. However ignorant you were, if you stuck at it and showed willing they got you over the bar, they’d never lower it. 

Watching TV you sit back and let it wash over you; you may even fall asleep. Learning on an interactive platform, as you should do in a lecture or tutorial, and certainly when writing an essay or sitting an exam, you ‘lean forward’ – you engage the brain – the harder you are made to think, the greater the struggle, the more likely you have learnt something lasting and of value on which you can build.

Professor Gilly Salmon talks us through her Five Stages of e-learning

Fig. 1 Prof Gilly Salmon on Scaffolding for her Five Stages of Learning (c) Swinburne University of Technology 2014

Five levels, fifteen components
Keeping students engaged all the way through.

The building blocks or ‘scaffolding’ – perhaps Mecanno would have done the trick?

Stage 1: Familiarisation

1) Green Cube – People must have access to your platform to get in and motivation. May be issues to start with over technical access. Don’t need to know everything about the platform you are using, but they do need to be able to get in time and time again.
2) Blue Cylinder – e-moderator. Human intervention. Welcome. Support. Provide motivation to go on. To facilitate delivery of a successful learning experience. Don’t try to teach them anything yet.
3) Yellow Plank – Learning to take part, learning to log on and learning to come back frequently.

Stage 2: The start of online socialisation

Culture building and building your own little learning set.

4) Green Plank – technology environment part: not all the features, but how to navigate around and respond to others: not all the features, how to take part.
5) Blue Cube – e-moderator. A host at a cocktail party. Introductions. Basic needs satisfied.

Learning in three ways:

6a) Yellow Cube – Forming a team, getting to know others.
6b) Yellow Cube – Familiar with why they are working inline for this course.
6c) Yellow Cube – Some idea of what is coming up that is relevant for the course they are studying – don’t give them anything hard to do.

Stage 3: Information exchange

Get learners working together, exchanging known information they can bring or information that they can find.

7) Yellow Plank – e-tivity design to enable them to take part, navigate around, familiar by now.
really good e-tivities
8) Green Plank – links are working, can navigate around, feel familiar with the environment by now.
9) Blue Cube – really good e-tivities and have a presence.

Stage 4: Knowledge construction

10a/b) Yellow Columns – Constructing new knowledge
11) Green Bridging Piece – Everyone is taking part and everyone has a clear role
12) Blue Plank – e-moderator – do rather less …. gently, gently with feedback extremely important

Stage 5: benefit from looking back before looking forward

A bit of meta-cognition.
The role they have taken, what went on …

15) Green Triangle – a bit of technology (submitting assessments)
14) Red – Assessment or summative assessment
13) Blue Cube – back and forth through the online. course

For online or blended courses.

This video describes the scaffolding stage for the 5 stage model created by Professor Gilly Salmon. This is part of the Carpe Diem video collection via Scaffolding for learning (Carpe Diem MOOC).

Knowing how to tutor ‘in the real world’ is vital if you are ever to succeed at this online.

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Spending four hours with some 30 students attending the School of Communication Arts is always an eyeopener and reminder of the worth of paying the closest attention to how a person is responding to the brief they have been set. In order to spread myself across the ones, twos and threes I sit with I set the timer on the iPhone to 15 minutes.

Four hours later my overall impression is that this is an impressive intake of students – I last sat with them in October so it is wonderful to recognise that they are in tune with the needs of advertisers – solving problems in a 21st cenutry blend of ways. Every team had answered their respective briefs with a solid response – all I felt I should do was to help them think through their rational and give them confidence to push their idea with every ounce of their energies. If I had the means to take any of them on I’d so so – they are smart, open and receptive. The real world is less kind and less receptive – someone should always be there to fight their corner, but it doesn’t alter their need to be able to sell and defend their ideas too.

So what does my background in eLearning have to offer to this? And is it possible to recreate any of this sense of collaborative creative problem solving online? Many turn to the Internet to embellish their ideas; all could be smarter with their search, not least favouring images or video, but asking what it is the Web will offer before they key in a few words. All presentations they give are as two minutes pieces created in Adobe Premier – the best are online, some pick up prestigious D&AD and other awards, many of the students are now gainfully employed in advertising agencies.

If judging learning I would conside the learning theory behind it and in the context its likelihood of success; how therefore do I judge the work of these students? As I learned at the School of Communication Arts myself the test is to be able to construct a sense of the creative brief that they must have received to get them to this point: is the problem that they are responding to self-evident? Do I know who the audience is? Can I see them as a persona, if not as an actual person? Would they relate to it? Is the ‘call to action’ clear? Is the execution memorable? Would I grab it on my phone? Would I blog about it and embed the student video from YouTube?

Why we need to call it ‘connected’ learning, not ‘networked’ learning

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As the education community seeks to envisage and plan for the future of learning most are too light on their fingers to consider that aspect that hasn’t changed, nor can its form or functioning be changed – the human brain. Is there a difference say between a child born into Pharoah’s Egypt several millenia ago and one born in Stoke on Trent this morning? Or a child born in the Belgium city of Liege on the 4th August 1914 and a child born in Nagasaki on the 4th August 1945. My challenge is to say examine the raw goods – what has a neuroscientist or a phsychologist got to say about the way we learn?

However and whatever sweeps us up we have an extraordinary capacity, as each new child is born and the next generation takes its place in the world, to stay true to form: our parents raise us, we learn both informally and formally, we are exposed to whatever chance provides us with – coloured by – to whom, and where, and when we are born, and how raised, and because of, or despite this, our ‘true nature’ is revealed, burried, or in other ways transmogrified.

We probably crave affection, recognition or security, we fall in and out of love, and probably mate, raise a child or two of our own, grow old as they grow up and see them on their way. In the scheme of things, on our death bed, do we reflect on what opportnities the education we were exposed to did to us or gave us? The perspective that needs to be taken is to see education holistically, especially as those parts of it that are still contained and made exclusive by books and institutions are freed up.

The latest Open University module that has my attention, H818:the networked practioner, uses a challenging approach whereby the cohort of students are to learn what ‘openness’ means through sharing and collaboration. However, already, I can see that far from being open, we have been coralled into tutor groups and the real boundaries that these create. In 1999 when I started blogging, in time, out of the hundreds I engaged with, three of us recognised eachother as likeminds and worked together on various creative writing and creative blogging projects – we found each other, we weren’t made to ‘be’ together. We stumbled upon eachother’s words and beyond liking what we read saw and came to see a common willingness to hangaround. Why this will struggle to work amongst 60 people divided into four groups is that ‘teacher’ has decided with whom we will work … not just teacher, but of course the cost, timing, platform, access and accessibility to the course content and its affordances.

There is no accounting for human nature. I can fluff up like pom-pom or prickle like a thistle; I can be as cute as a hedgehoge with its snout in the palm of your hand or fold into a ball of spikes because of a desire to be left alone. We all have these phases in various guises and can to a lesser or greater degree control them. In the vastness of the total Internet community we can be these things, whereas inside a the formal walls of an online learning module I suspect there will always be someone with some kind of stick, whether it is a tickling-stick or a club.

On reflection and baring in mind what I suggest above about the unique qualities of human nature – I like to chose the ‘gangs’ I join or to form my own. My default position is to be peripatetic. The point is, the default position of others will be as unique as they are. Across numerous modules and other collaborative activities I have seen groups wax and wane. To work the mix of people in the group generally needs to be highly diverse, with clear sets of skills to contribute and a variety of personality types too. There is good reason to build a professional team based on their skill set – take the creation of a film: not everyone can direct and produce, nor can everyone having a go at presenting or play the lead. The script can be composed collaboratively, though who did or does what, or gets credit for a line, character or scene is as complex as human nature and the sensibilities of the creative in all of us.

Recollections of postgraduate online learning since 2010

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Fig.1 Screengrab from JISC 2011 that I took part in via Twitter (see top right hand column). From my OU student blog of 14th March via a folder in my vast gallery on picasa.

Two and a half years ago I took part in JISC 2011 ‘at a distance’ – distance, cost and illness were all barriers to attending in person. I’m prompted to recall one of the afternoon conferences as Chris Pegler and Tony Hirst from the Open University were on the platform. As well as questions coming from the floor (some 200 attendees) questions also came from the online participants (some 350). A question I posed was picked out by the chair and discussed. For a dreadful moment I worried that I could be seen sitting in pyjammas and a dressing gown at the kitchen table. By March 2011 I was on my second Master of Arts in Open and Distance Education (MAODE) module. A month or so later I applied to and eventually joined the OU where I worked, living away from home, for a year. This year I graduated and have since also completed what I see as a conversion course ‘H809:Practise-based research in technology-based learning’ with a mind, belatedly in my lifetime, to undertake doctoral research. To ‘keep my hand in’ and to stay up to date I have joined a new MAODE module ‘H818:The networked practioner’. I am yet to feel fluent in the language and practice of e-learning so need this repeated immersion, modules that I did a couple of years ago are being updated and I want to prove to myself and potentially others that I can keep up the scholarly level of participation and assessment that I began to display on the last couple of modules.

The learning lessons here are simple: persistence, repetition and practice.

Ambitions to take me e-learning interests into healthcare were thwarted at my first interviews for doctoral research – I am not a doctor (medicine), nor have I conducted a clinical trial before … let alone the ambitions for my proposal that would require departmental participation and funding. Basically, I’d bitten off far too much.

With this in mind I am falling back on a subject on which I can claim some insight and expertise – the First World War. Knowing that expressing an interest, linking to a blog or unproduced TV scripts won’t open academic doors I’ve decided to take an MA in History … the subject I set out to study some decades ago before getting the collywobbles and transferring to Geography. So, alongside a 12-15 hour a week commitment to another OU module on e-learning I will, over the next two years, be spending as much time on an MA in British First World War studies with the University of Birmingham. The additional insight I will get from this is comparing abd contrasting a series of modules that rely on an intensive day every month of lectures and tutorials rather than the dense, minute by minute closely supported and networked virtual learning environment (VLE) of the Open University.

Meanwhile, as in March 2011, I am recovering from a stinking cold. Not totally incapacitated – I have read several books, nodding off between chapters and so plagued by dreams about the causes of war in 1914. Power politics and corporate takeovers where the soldier is the worker while the owners, investment bankers and hedge fund managers risk all for their own gain.

‘If you’re not lost and confused in a MOOC you are probably doing something wrong’


Photo credit: Robin Good

 

‘MOOCs indicate that we are seeing a complexification of wishes and needs’ – so we need a multispectrum view of what universities do in society. George Siemens, (18:51 25th March 2013).

 

A terrific webinar hosted by Martin Weller with George Siemens speaking. Link to the recorded event and my notes to follow.

I took away some key reasons why OER has a future:

 

  1. Hype between terrifying and absurd.
  2. State reduction in funding will see a private sector rise.
  3. Increase in rest of world’s desire for HE OER
  4. Certificates growing.
  5. The Gap
  6. Accelerating time to completion
  7. Credit and recognition for students who go to the trouble to gain the competencies.
  8. Granular learning competencies and the gradual learning and badging to stitch together competencies.

 

And a final thought from the host:

‘If you’re not lost and confused in a MOOC  you are probably doing something wrong’.  Martin Weller (18:45 25th March 2013)

Which rather means I may be doing something wrong!

I posted to Linkedin, I am neither confused, nor lost. Indeed I have a great sense of where I am and what is going on, have met old online friends and am making new contacts and enjoy using two of my favourite platforms: Google+ and WordPress.  (All the fun’s at H817open)

 

A selection of papers are proving enlightening too:

 

1) John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health OpenCourseWare (2009) Kanchanaraksa, Gooding, Klass and Yager.

 

2) The role of CSCL pedagogical patterns as mediating artefacts for repurposing Open Educational Resources (2010) Conole, McAndrew & Dimitriadis

 

3) A review of the open educational resources (OER) movement: Achievements, challenges, and new opportunities. Report to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

 

I’ll post a 500 word review of the above shortly as per H817open Activity 7.

The value is both expanding the reasons for OER as well as having a handful of objections, negatives and concerns. Like all things regarding e-learning, they is no panacea for putting in the time and effort.

And a couple of others that look interesting:

 

Disruptive Pedagogies and Technologies in Universities (2012)  Anderson and McGreal

 

Open education resources: education for the world? (2012) Richter and McPherson

 

Why skiing is my metphor for life and learning

Fig.1.   Mont Turia from the summit of Aiguille Rouge, Les Arcs at 3250m

On the last day, on the last run of my first week’s skiing I broke my leg rather badly. I was 13. I was in hospital for a week. In a wheelchair for two months and had the leg re-broken as it wasn’t setting properly. I spent six months at home. Idiot. But most 13 year old boys are.

I missed the next season.

For the following 20 years skiing mattered – a gap year working in the Alps (Val D’Isere in the Sofitel Hotel working 13 hours a day 7 days a week), a decade later researching a TV documentary and book  (Oxford Scientific Films, Skieasy Ski Guides), falling in love with a fellow skiing enthusiast (we’ve been married 20 years), a honeymoon on the slopes and ten years later, on the slopes with a 4 and 6 year old, then again when they were 10 and 12. 

I miss it.

(See above – the last week of the season, Tignes. The only people on the slopes are the ‘seasoniers’ who have worked since December. It is like being on the beach. A stream that flows above Val Claret melts and various ponds form. We ski it.)

Early in the afternoon I’d asked my girlfriend if she’d marry me. I was feeling cock-a-hoop.

We’ve been back twice in the last decade. There have been other priorities. I’ll be taking my 14 year old son out later this month or in April. Is that wise? At this age teenagers really are prone to take risks and can lack the physique.

Reasons to celebrate and look forwards

37 months to the day after starting the Masters in Open & Distance Education (MAODE) I got the final result, for H810: Accessibility in Open Learning – supporting students with disabilities, today. 84.

It has been so worth it and such a better, engaging, effective, experience than my undergraduate degree in a traditional university some decades ago. I feel as if I have earned it for a start. I have survived disasters rather than succumbed to them.

I am a reading, thinking, writing machine.

I feel like someone who has come to skiing late in life and has caught the bug. My mother started skinning in her mid 40s … and in her 50th year (unencumbered by her husband who was with wife three by then) sold the house and did a belated ‘gap year’ working a season in the Alps. The equivalent for me has to be the intellectual challenge of doctoral research.

More reading, thinking and writing – with research and teaching too I hope.

Onwards.

Tutor Marked Assignment One  (TMA01) for H809 (Practice-based research in educational technology) is due on Monday.

Why more?

‘Practice-based research in educational technology’, to use skiing as a metaphor, is like learning to ski ‘off-piste’. Apt, as the tracks I make are ones I have planned, rather than keeping to the groomed, signed and patrolled ‘safety’ of the regular runs.

And my reward?

Fig. 2. Mont Blanc – From the Ski Resort of La Plagne,  Above Montchavin. Les Arc on the right . The road to Val d’Isere clinging to the mountain in the middle distance Bourg St. Maurice in the bottom of the Valley

Skiing en famille.

We’ve not been out for five years so it should be a treat. It has to be on a shoestring, so short of hitching to Bulgaria can anyone recommend ways to keep the cost down?!!

 

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