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The Open University’s Masters in Open and Distance Education in images

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I’ve created, screengrabbed, mashed up and photographed my way through four years with the OU – seven modules. I should share more of them or turn it into an eBook or some such – a six hour long SlideShare? There are over 1600 images.

S.C.A.R.F.

Trying to rationalise and reflect on what next I’ve reduced it to this mnemonic:

S=Strategic

C=Connectedness, Collaboration and several other Cs

A=Applied

R=Reciprocal

F=Financed.

In that order too.

S = Strategic is a term I know a few fellow students of the Master of Arts: Open and Distance Education (MAODE) have used. This means time management to some, curbing the desire to disappear down intellectual rabbit holes to others … while for me it probably means taking on less and being more focused and less distracted. Immediately on leaving this space I will refine my contacts on Linkedin and reduce the groups I am in yet further. I should concentrate only on people I know or strategically relate to and then make time for them – ditto the groups. I only need to be in a couple. These can be vibrant and worthy of your attention. “S’ might also stand for ‘sustainable’ – see ‘financed’ below.

C = Collaborative is key for me. Historically success has always come from at least two, sometimes a small team of us doing something. I find the second person or others creates a responsibility to see a thing through to its conclusion which may not happen when I am left to my own devices. And of course, two heads are better than one from a problem solving point of view.

A = Applied, over the other ‘a’ word ‘academic’. While the MAODE usually draws from your real life experience I really want to be spending most of my time putting into practice the many insights and skills I have gained on the MAODE and had to bring into play for H818: The Networked Practitioner. This means, most likely, returning to learning and development (L&D) – agency side rather than client side. This may happen sooner rather than later as I have a second interview with a learning company this week. This would see me designing learning for workshops and online. ‘A’ needs also to stand for ‘ask’ – see ‘Financed’ and ‘O’ below.

R = Reciprocal. This I have known for a decade. There is no ‘gaming’ the system to create collaboration or connectedness online. You have to be less selfish and more altruistic. It pays to seek out like minds and take an interest in them as they will return the favour. Just a handful of people will do. I feel I had deserted a few of the folk I used to converse with all the time … and have let relationships with some people from earlier MAODE modules slip. No more!

F = Financed. So funded too. Contracted or raising funds for my projects. Applications have gone out seeking funds for the Quick Response Codes Poppy thing – either to apply it to the activities, say of the Western Front Association, or simply to go to schools or associations and give a talk … which would in due course become a self-contained why and how to e-learning module. This means asking for money. Yes, it is about selling. Amanda Palmer is a reminder of this. Crowdfunding is a little distance, while applying to appropriate sources of funding is another. The entrepreneur in me has raised funds commercially too in the past. If I need financing I have to ask for it.

There ought to be an ‘O’ – as in ‘open’ or ‘openness’ – in this coming out of H818, but I have to differentiate between ‘Big O”, ‘little o’ and ‘gratuitous exposure’. I tend to have been the former. It all goes online whatever its value or not. It doesn’t take much to make more postings closed and use a blog as an e-portfolio so I will. I use to say to people that the best place to hide a secret was to post it in a blog – the sophistication of the probing search engines means that this is no longer the case (if it ever was?). Serendipity isn’t as effective as a request i.e. ‘ask’. So ‘open’, but nuanced. Early in this module we reflected on this. So I wonder what the outcome might be? For some it would be the value of being open at all, whereas for me it is to be less so.

Do you prefer to read widely or pick the brains of experts?

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Reading a history of the Armistice after the First World War – I’m a few years ahead of the centenary of 1914, I learn the Lloyd George preferred the former: picking the brains of experts was preferable to reading widely.

Studying with the Open University can be both: you read and discuss at length – it depends so much on the course you are taking and serendipity. If you are goash you ought to be able to approach anyone at all in your faculty – not that you have much sense of what this is. You have an immediate student tutor group of 12 or so and a wider module cohort of say 60. You can read widely simply by extending your reach through references courtesy of the OU library, though I think what is meant here is a more general and broad intellect, that you take an interest, liberally, in the arts and sciences, in history and politics …

Increadingly this ‘widely read’ person can have multiple degrees – learning online may be more expensive than a shelf of books but you emerge at the other end a wiser person?

Being online affords a thousand opportunities to both read widely and to pick the brains of experts; what this requires is Web 2.0 literacy – the nous to drill deep when you read in a way that has never before been possible, unless, perhaps you have been privileged enough to have ready access to and the time to use one of the world’s elite libraries and your father or mother is a senior academic, government minister or captain of industry who loves to hold ‘house parties’ at the weekend. For the rest of us, there is now this new landscape – if not a level playing field (there are privileges based on cost and inclusion) – it is one where, with skill, guile, knowledge and experience you can gravitate towards and rope in the people and the books.

Studying with the Open University ‘at a distance’ can be neither: if reading is tightly focused by the content provided and you are penalised rather than admired for reading widely: you are supposed to stick to the text as it is on this that your tutor will assess you. And the participation of experts is random: my seven modules with the OU has had some of the more prominent names of distance and open education as the chair and as tutors, some are present and make themselves readily available though some appear only in the byline or tangentially not taking part in any discussion or debate – it is their loss and ours. I sound as if I am denegrating the tutors as my expectation has come to see in them an ‘educator’ – not necessarily a subject matter expert, but a facilitator and an enabler, someone who knows there way around the digital corridors of the Open University Virtual Learning Environment.

You get to know where to look: Amazon for books and the student forum that is the eclectic thread of reviews, then discussions in a specialist Linkedin group rounded off by webinars and hangouts. You may prefer one or the other but I suspect a balance of both is the most effective: you put in the information from books and you form your own opinions in discussions.

Learning at the speed of desire

Fig.1. My whirlwind of postgraduate learning. (c) J F Vernon (2013)

For a brief period I have been a registered student at three universities: Oxford Brookes (FSLT14), the Open University (MAODE H818)  and the University of Birmingham (MA First World War). This is what my mind needs to feel I am ‘in the flow’. Live TV does it too – behind the camera, anything can go wrong, or go right.

The first two online and the latter campus based. My motives for joining FLST14 were to push my learning towards education in Higher Education and applied learning in business – as a practitioner I’ve been making the transition from production and learning services to the education side for a good decade – seeking to be part of the learning process rather than creating resources at a distance. First Steps into Learning and Teaching 2014 (FSLT14) came along where I have had a brief window and for an opportunity to revisit, understand and apply this process of reflection it worked where previous efforts to crack this have failed. I’m also, in some respects, testing from a professional perspective different learning platforms and approaches.

I’ve done three MOOCs in as many years – some huge, one so closely managed it was like a formal MBA module. I’ve done and nearly completed a FutureLearn MOOC too (WebSciences) and enjoyed taking part in another FutureLearn MOOC on Hamlet (University of Birmingham) as an observer. I can see myself doing a couple of these a year: they replace an inclination of buying hefty, coffee-table non-fiction books on a thing in the belief that ownership alone will result in the transmission of knowledge from the page to my head. For the last decade I’ve applied the same principle to eBooks which hasn’t worked either. I need to be reading the things for a reason – increasingly this is because, voluntairly, I need to respond with a book review, intelligent intercourse in a seminar or in an essay that will be assessed and graded.

It is interesting to be back in class: lectures and reading lists with essays to write, but the comparison I make for FSLT14 is with other online modules.

Where, for me FSLT14 worked so well as that it clearly knows what it can and cannot deliver. It is a Bonsai tree, not the entire forest. It might even be a cherry-tree haphazardly trained along the back wall of the garage if I am to continue the metaphor. This is a blessing. More is definitely less.

I’ve been on modules that say it is 14 hours a week but it quickly becomes apparent that it is more like 22 hours – sometimes they excuse this by having ‘Optional’ activities, but these are ambitiously long, even indulgent reading lists set up us students to feel we may be failing or inadequate if we can’t or don’t take an interest in these. I am not a strategic learner; I expect those responsible for the learning design to do this. If you go to the trouble of putting a book or paper it is because you expect students to read it – rather than, what I feel the academic is doing – showing off how much they have read. Research shows that activities that are marked ‘optional’ are not done. I find, where I do these any effort lands on deaf ears – no one else could give a monkey’s … That said, I’ve also just completed an OU heavy-weight H818: The Networked Practitioner.

Here the commitment and presence of the Chair was palpable and of enormous value. As students it is encouraging to us to have those who designed a course to show maintain their presence.

On the one hand you have the course content, designed and posted online, on a railway track learning journey that is suitably detailed, but never overwhelming. You can battle on alone, or join in. With fellow students this is straight forward, it is simply a matter of sticking your head over the garden fence on a regular basis and returning the compliment of someone commenting or providing feedback to do the same to them … while being mindful as you become one of the experts to look after those who may feel on the edge of things. How, when and if the tutor is a presence depends on if they go by their contracted hours, or are indulgent enough as a vocational educator to be around. I feel a tutor should host their group. Over four years, and seven modules I’ve had seven tutors, of course, though seen and probably remarked on the actions, behaviours, strengths and weaknesses of at least another 14 tutors. Some what the French call ‘animateurs’ – they galvanise their group; others are withdrawn, very academic and correct – but brilliant in their own way. Others become, for want of a phrase ‘one of the lads’. I’m less certain that this works or is appropriate – not in primary, secondary or tertiary education. And so on. The worse are the ones who simply are not there. Who seem to have less idea what is going on than their students and as you’d expect a student who is struggling to do start to winge and make excuses. I’ve never had to do it so I ought to be more circumspect; I am sure that it can only be reasonable to expect tutors to work their contracted hours. My view of education and being an educator is more Socratic. I expect their presence.

With seven significant online postgraduate modules under my belt this is of course not the typical picture: some are heavily based on reading, others on activities with assessments patterns to suit. Mentioning the ‘traditional’ course I am doing, actually 1000 pages to read per week is clearly excessive isn’t it? You give up lie-ins and TV, and other hobbies …  (By the way, I share regularly in the OU Student Blog platform thoughts and hopes with someone who has now completed 21 postgraduate modules with the Open University. I think this equates to four degrees!!)

Fig. 1. Muir Woods. One visit wasn’t enough. I spent three days in here.

I describe my inability to see the wood for the trees as I was too busy enjoying being a woodsman.

I could not stand back and reflect on what had taken place – not during the course, though perhaps a few months later. I return to this horticultural metaphor as I found with FSLT14 that I could fit it in, no more, no less. I could see it for what it was and admired its focus. During FSLT14 I feel I have become fluent in the language of education. It has been the tipping point, the moment, where like learning a new language you feel the fog has cleared.

This has been possible because of its modesty and humanity – there is an intimacy in the connectedness that I haven’t found elsewhere – perhaps in specialist interest groups in LinkedIn and Google+

Fig.2. Dr. Zbigiew Pelczynski taking his grandson for a walk

Our feedback session felt like an Oxbridge Tutorial; I’ve had the privilege of learning through that system as an undergraduate but took it for granted thinking that it was how all university’s could do things. There is significant value in a few people being able to talk around a topic and have enough time to take in what people were saying. And of course, the global reach of this is such a revealing way to consider your own position and practice. My insight on the Oxbridge tutorial system – I was an undergraduate thirty years ago, has been embellished by marriage to the daughter of a prominent Oxford tutor and personality, Dr Zbigniew Pelczynski. I interviewed him about the tutorial system and shared this online. Ever since I’ve pondered how Web 2.0 could be used to give tens of millions the Oxbridge tutorial experience – some institutions are doing this already. The Webscience MOOC I did, though hosted by two University of Southampton professors, was populated, on rotation I think, by four PhD students each week. This meant, as we have come to expect using communications platforms, that more often or not, a reply came to whatever you posted in a few hours, or sooner – rather than days later or not at all. As an online student you start to recognise the pattern a tutor has – never on a weekday, never at the weekend, only on a Tuesday. That’s their plan, but it feels like a gross misappropriation of powers they ought not to have … to effectively ignore you until they can be bothered. All should and could be receiving updated posts on an RSS feed.

Fig.3. Something I drew.

Setting out to become a ‘Master’ of anything at all – ‘Open and Distance Education’ has received my attention, though four years ago I was interviewed to take an MA in Fine Art.

True! It has taken this extra year, a couple of modules beyond graduating with the MA, to feel that I can describe myself as a ‘Master’. It’ll be another six years before I can, some theorists think, a ‘Scholar’. But I, like John Seely Brown, do not believe in this ‘10,000 hours’ thing – I’ve read the original research paper on musicians learning violin at the Berlin Conservatoire. Playing a musical instrument does not readily translate to anything else or everything else, especially where most violinists start at the age of 4. Which is when Picasso picked up a paint brush under the tutelage of his father, an art teacher from the local university. What were your learning at age 4 that you have developed into an expertise ten or twenty years later? Picasso, in his words, could paint like Rubens by the time he was 14. And we know about Mozart. There’s value in starting young and sticking with it: swimming anyone? Singing too.

Web 2.0 allows ‘learning at the speed of need’, to prefer learning over TV or the gym, over friends and relationships, walking the dog and the garden.

I have for the last five months been working on two MA degrees in parallel – not something I would have considered even three years ago. Not only do I think it is doable, I think, with the right course, you can contain it to the 14 hours a week each requires. The magic, the synergy, the insights that come from this greater intensity is, going back to it, what Oxford and Cambridge expect when they ‘hot house’ students through their short, eight week terms. And how many hours are they expected to put in? At the Oxford Internet institute I was advised that the MA students would be doing 44+ hours a week. Intensity works once you are up to speed. For this means getting myself into ‘the flow’ as Mihaly Csikzentmihayli puts it.

Do you know you xMOOC from your cMOOC?

The realities of MOOCs

I stumbled upon this succinct article on MOOCs by Ben Betts.

MOOCs are why I returned to the OU having completed the Masters in Open and Distance Education (MAODE) at the end of 2012. I followed H817:Openness and Innovation in eLearning, joining the Open but, and have now complete two further modules: H809: Research based practices in Educational Technology (with an eye on research) and the phenomenal H818: The Networked Practitioner (just completed) … this as the field keeps transforming I intend to stay abreast of it. Indeed, I’ll keep on eye on H817 for 2015 as this is a considerable advance on the old H807 I did in 2010 that had its content stuck somewhere between 1999 and 2005.

What is interesting in this article is that the author Ben Betts ponders as a passing thought at the end of the piece on the need to ‘learn how to learn’.

This for me is where too many practitioners go wrong – they have their eye so firmly fixed on the ‘next big thing’ that they forget or ignore the understanding we have gained about how we learn over decades. There needs to be a healthy loop that obliges us to consider the basics: learning theories and to see MOOCs in context – all learning is ‘blended’ – even the purely online learning module is conducted by someone with their feet or bum firmly on the ground or in a chair.

The other mistake that other authors make too often is to sensationalise activities or developments such as the MOOC. Every advance builds on something else, and for all their strengths they have weaknesses too, and whatever affordances they have may be exploited or ignored. Interesting times and delighted to find an expert author and practitioner to follow.

What I needed, and got from H809 was a grounding in learning theory which at last I am starting to master. If a further course is required for me it would be more on the application of learning theory, probably in the broader setting of ‘education’ rather than an e-learning context and probably informed by a role educating on the ground – so practice based and applied. Which rather suggests in business – as indeed I did for the best part of 15 years.

On Loving the Open University – hours after submitting a 5000 word assignment. Give me more!

Fig.1. Love steps in the snow. Spotted outside the Michael Young Building, home to the Open University Business School

I have a unique insight on the Open University. I graduated with a Masters in Open and Distance Education in 2012, worked at the Business School for a year and have done further postgraduate modules since – not just here but at other institutions too.

I know what you get:

  • An online system and support network that is second to none: clear, robust, intuitive and friendly.
  • You gain from educators who are just that – wedded to the process and their subject.
  • And you gain most of all from the fabulous network of contacts and friends that you make – even if you never meet them, you have a myriad of ways to share your thinking and ideas online.

In the course of my duties I interviewed some twenty MBA international students during a residential school in Brussels – what a great, inspired and positive bunch. These were people in business, with aspirations, as start-ups, from the established to the new kids on the block, and from right around the globe. For this residential week they flew in from the US, from Japan and Russia … and everywhere in between or around the corner. That is the nature of the beast – International.

And then, perhaps like so many of us, you finish one module and itch to join another. Personally, I will never stop learning and have found no better way to achieve my goals than with the OU. My next step? After a lifetime of failing to do so, to learn French well enough not simply to understand it and to speak it …. but to write it too. That module starts in October 2014.

Then there’s the MBA. I had the most wonderful time on the module ‘Creativity, Innovation and Change’.

My Personal Learning Environment. What’s yours?

I should look back at how this has changed over four years. Taking on more technology took a while. I remember the days of printing off. Then I migrated to an iPad and constantly looked at ways not to come offline ever. Now I mix it all up: I use a white board, I doodle in a notepad and I shift between devices as everything is done in Google Docs.

I have some favourite apps:

SimpleMinds

Studio

And load perhaps 50-100 pictures to Picasa Web Gallery every day … there are over 2000 images and screen-grabs from the MAODEs alone. And far too many pictures of the dog hiding when I take her for a walk.

My only bete noire are the ruddy cables you need to supply power to the kit; I went away for a few days armed with iPad and Macbook Air but forget the charger for the laptop. The iPad cable feels as if I am packing a coil of rope – it ways more with the plug and takes up more space.

My test over the next couple of months is when I set off for a month to Belgium, France and the Alps. Will I hanker after a robust broadband signal all the time?

Collaboration amongst strangers is a tricky one. I’ve seen it work and I’ve seen it fail

It requires scaffolding in the form of rules, or guidelines, mentor or leaders, and incentives in the form of punishments and rewards i.e. the risk of failure as well as recognition and some kind of reward (which might be a qualification, a monetary award, or part of a completed artefact, or pleasure of participation).

or

It requires people with an obsessive common interest; I don’t believe having a common interest is enough. There needs to be an obsession, which means that the level of expertise can be mixed, indeed, thinking of the John Seely Brown concept of ‘learning from the periphery’ this might be best as invariably the natural human response IS to support those on the edge. The classic example is the young and eager student or junior employee keen to learn from his or her elders.

My concern with the role of collaboration in a module on e-learning is that the above don’t fully apply. We are not GCSE or A’Level students. Most are MA ODE students who need this towards their MA, but I’ll stick my head out and say the pass mark is, in my opinion, is too low. I’ll always think of anything under 50 as a fail … so I personally would have had to retake or resubmit my EMA for the first two modules I took (I submitted journalistic, even blog like pieces as I’d yet to get to grips with the rigours of submitting an academic paper).

To my tutor group I’ve posted too long a piece on a collaborative exercise I have been doing on and off for the best part of twenty year – I’m researching and writing my grandfather’s memoir from the First World War. The Internet has exposed me (in a good way) to several sleuths.

I can however give an example of the learning design MOOC earlier this year that whilst having a good deal of scaffolding and human support relied on strangers each coming up with project ideas then joining forces to complete one. In a rush of activity, with some big name e-learning folk and too much formal theorizing, reading and activities to groups formed. I had no takers and joined a group of three that became five, but very quickythis became two of us … we gamefully pressed on but at some stage felt we were missing out on the real action so eventualy pulled out as active participants.

Amateur dramatics, even volunteer cricket, to take a couple of examples, work because the show is the collective reward. We have bonfire societies here in Lewes that rely on volunteers too – thugh the complaint will be that it is always the same handful of people who do everything.

I believe that the First World War, now that I am an active member of a society and studying it on a formal course, is largelly of the type 2 participant. We are ‘trainsporters’ in that nerdy, glazed eye way – with specialists who know everything about uniforms, or tunnelling, or submarines, or dental decay on the Western Front, or a particular general, or like me – a grandfather, or greatgrandfather who was a combatant.

My worry about e-learning as a collaborative arena is that it is the process, so we are a cookery or gardening club. However, there is significant variation in each of these – vegetarian cooks, cupcake bake off specialists and Heston Blomenfal wannabes – amongst the gardens their are PhD research students growing dwark barley and weekenders who’ve keep an allotment. Whilst we have interst and the module to sustain us, only in a conort of 1000 or more would for some, there be enough likeminds to form a team.

I’m off to the School of Communication Arts in London. It operates from a workshop like open studio. Students are put into pairs to work. There is collaboration here between an art director (visualiser) and copywriter (words). Whether students are forever looking each other’s shoulders when they are working on a competitive brief is another matter. I’ve noticed how one creative brief given to the whole studio has now become three. What is more, the ‘collaboration’ as such, comes from a couple ofcfull time tutors, principal and then a ‘mentors’ who go in as a sounding board cum catalyst cum different voice or perspective. What these people are doing is ‘creative problem solving’.

Why, historically, does one band stay together while another falls apart? Collaboration is a tricky business – and maybe only in a business setting between employer and employee, or between contractor and client can it be sustained?

The contents of my brian

Fig. 1. A moment to reflect

This by the by was the title of a TV screenplay I submitted to the BBC – rejected otherwise you might have seen it on the box by now and I wouldn’t be sitting here.

As the round up to my final, final MA ODE module H818: The Networked Practitioner it is suggested that we prepare a timeline drawing on possible blog entries, as well as ‘appearances’ in the OpenStudio platform we’ve been using.

I’ve posted some 80 times since H818 began. I’ve posted some, I don’t know, 1000 times here since February 2010?

The surprise is to find a dozen references to H818 from 2012 and when contemplating how I got to the ideas that I delivered for H818 where these may have emerged from. This in turn takes me as far back as a visit to the Science Museum in 2010. Then all manner of things, from the launch of Martin Weller’s book ‘The Digital Scholar’ and attending seminars in Bristol on ‘curation’ and earliest indicators that I may take an MA in First World War studies having tried to write on the subject for … well, 22 years ago another failed TV play optioned by Tyne Tees Television called ‘That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendaele’ – which is what my late grandfather said to me while we watched the local news featuring a private in the Durham Light Infantry out in Saudi Arabia. He was 96 in 1992 and had joined the DLI in his teens in late 1915.

And all of this for my very, very, very last EMA ever.

And what did I just jot down

‘Word counts in an EMA are anathema to the culture of open education’

My first draft, I haven’t ever dared look, will run to anything between 6,000 and 12,000 words.

Talking of writing … never one to say never, I have committed to a week long ‘retreat’ with a dear friend and writing tutor. My goal is to work on … ‘The Angel of the North’ a story set in the era of the First World War about a woman who flies over the Western Front.

(Actually, I’ve just thought of that. She does fly with an RFC pilot/instructor … and in the final pages is about to set off to attempt to fly the Atlantic for the first time in the wrong direction. She does, as a couple of women did, impersonate a soldier to get herself into the Front Line …)

Oh boy. And I thought I was done with writing. Thought that getting 5,000 words finished was a challenge. It is, but the OU provides the parameters and schedules, the kick up the arse and the carrot that no other kind of writing has yet provided. Except for once.

Meanwhile I must get the kids to school, must walk the dog and must prepare for an online conference I madly volunteered to do a few weeks ago as if I didn’t have enough on … which will include sitting with a veteran of the Second World War this weekend, he was in the Polish Resistance during the Warsaw Uprising. I have a Sony Flip camera and digital sound recorder in my pocket determined to interview him as I did my grandfather …

Onwards to … more of the same I should think

p.s. yes, it is my ‘brian’ – the idea of the brain is so ridiculous.

L’Enfer (Hell), Georges Leroux, 1921

Fig. 1. L’Enfer (Hell), Georges Leroux, 1921.

If QR codes are the key into content on the First World War then audiences need to be grabbed in an instant … in the first 45 seconds. Horror shocks. This image, recreating the last moments of the soldier featured, is an idea I have to create a short, powerful film. Once I have their attention, then I/we, the community of people interested in the First World War, can share and point to further information and experiences.

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