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Online Learning Revisited
It won’t get me a job as a learning technologist (aka technician) but I’ve said it (in a presentation interview online) and will repeat it now and develop the argument, that the best learning experience a student can have is you in the room with them; if this cannot happen, then it is you LIVE, online, talking them through a topic, guiding them and praising them, correcting them and challenging them, responding to their individual stops and starts. Of course, one to one is not scalable. Nor is it sexy tech. So there have to be compromises.
In my five years completing a Masters in Open and Distance Education (MAODE) with the Open University, taking the five required modules, and in due course another two or three to complete the ‘set’ I can recall two positive modules and equally positive experiences – and outstanding results. No longer the 42/53 and odd 70 I got in other (and admittedly earlier modules), but 92/93 – If I’d retaken the entire MAODE I guess I might have gained a Distinction. Though I am certain I would have needed the kind of support these tutors provided, but they only provided that support on their modules.
This was all online, ‘at a distance’ and very little of it was live. Rather we were ‘as live’ as much as anything putting content into a common OU Student Blog that our tutor and fellow students could dip into. I know that one or two students did outstandingly well and barely interacted at all … but I’m a social learner, I like the praise, I like to be ticked off and corrected too – and to put awkward questions, and to ask ‘why?’ over and over again. I don’t mean to be annoying but when I don’t ‘get it’ I just don’t and it takes a new angle, a new link, something else to read, a chance comment, an analogy or visualisation to get me over the line. Then once I understand it, I really understand it 🙂 I wear it on my sleeve, it is tattooed into my brain.
So where does this leave online learning?
It requires engagement, it requires responsiveness to the individual, even tailor-made – it requires direct engagement from the tutor – ideally the course chair, and where not that someone highly qualified in the subject – NOT a ‘nanny’ moderator who knows f*** all on the topic. Expertise matures over time, it is not last year’s PhD student or this years MA student, it is ideally a professor, or a senior lecture, who lives and breathes their subject.
But how can this be scaled up to teach hundreds, even thousands?
When I last checked there were over 223 million young people around the world hoping to go into tertiary education. There aren’t the professors and senior lecturers to teach them. So we have to create learning, create learning, gamify it, modulerise it, make it ‘smart’ and compromise. AI will do a better job that some tutors and mentors in due course – what is the point of a jobsworth mentor/tutor who restricts their engagement with you to a couple of hours on a Thursday evening – because, they tell you, they are only paid X to do X hours. This is where you need people who teach as a vocation, whatever the risk is to exploitation. This is for their line manager to protect them from, their union to negotiate or challenge if it goes wrong. Can a Chatbot behave like someone whose vocation it is to teach? To experience students finding and developing their strengths?
You have to make the time. And where time is limited you have to use Tech to make more time available – but it is always diluted. Online learning needs to be simple and effective for very particular tasks – I love the determined simplicity of the language learning platform LingVist for example. Involved tangentially in the development of a language learning platform in 2000/2001 I have followed developments closely, tried many apps and approaches (including failed attempts at an A’ Level, and even a undergraduate degree).
Online learning in the form of a course or module must be offered in a multitude of ways to provide a complete experience which includes live/as live, interaction, solo study, old fashioned reading and essay writing, lectures too, as well as smarter IT elements to ingrain specific necessary elements which are suited to a Tech approach.
What’s the best policy regarding students ‘switching’ to a later ‘presentation’ during a MOOC?
Completion rates for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) bug their creators because of the massive fall-out. Like the half-life of something in a pond at Sellafield the figures can half in a week, and half again in another couple of weeks and at the end of a 12 week course there are 50 people left out of the original 15,000.
The excuses and reasons for this drop-out are multivarious: many never planned to start the course – it is too easy to sign up to something that is free; an early poor experience puts people off: it is not for them, too hard, too boring, irrelevant or time consuming. They can have a technical melt down too: the learning platform is pants, or their kit and connection isn’t up to it. A course can over promise and under deliver; there is a terribly fine balance and on the side of the creators ignorance of their students who can and will be ‘anyone’ : digitally literate or not, English their first language or not, lect school young with no qualifications or a professor nosing in on something that is their expertise …
Reasons that people stick include: they’ve paid for it, it should enhance their job prospects or working life (it has practical worth), they ‘like’ the educator(s), they ‘like’ their fellow students and/or ‘enjoy’ the platform, its functionality and experience. The intrinsic rather than the extrinsic motivators work best.
A responsive ‘platform’ by which I mean the educational establishment or organisation (The OU, Coursera, FutureLearn, EDx) will identify and fix sticking points: a flood of people quit after the third multiplechoice assessment – you fix it; the 12th too-long to camera talking head of the same person and you jazz them up, get someonelse or look for alternative approaches; and you acknowledge that everyone studying ‘at a distance’ and ‘online’ probably never had the time to set aside to study your course in the first time so will need time to adjust – to make time. And life is fickle, they may have setbacks. Great therefore if on a 3, or 5 or even a 12 week course or module that they can ‘elect’ at any stage to ‘switch’ to the next ‘presentation’ – so they pick it up in a few weeks.
With switching I wonder if there could be a way to discourage multiple switching though. I fear that what can happen is that having switched once out of expediency, then a second time ‘because you can’ then the third time there is some kind of behavioural pattern established and the person will never complete the course. Were a student physically attending class an aware supervisor would cause the student to think twice on the second ‘default’ switching and may put ‘soft’ barriers in the way of the third – after all, the hidden agenda here is about ‘completion rates’: one indicator of a successful course is the percentage whi make it to the end.
By not having switching, rather like having students paying a fee, you force their hand – gently, and sometimes of necessity. You have to face up to the genuine challenges of learning: you face and overcome obstacles whether they occur in your real home or professional life or because you are struggling ‘in class’. Either you have, or develop resilience; you seek help and advice and get it.
The graphic (actually an ‘installation’) featured at the top of the page is by American Lawrence Weiner whose work I first saw at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona. His career has been spent trying to visualise something amorphous: how we communicate and share ideas. My take on this ‘Nine pieces in a brown bag’ might have been the odd title, relates to my view on the power of two people making a better job of problem so,bing or creation than a person on their own, or, it could represent the interface between an educational institution and students. It means what you want it to mean. I have often resorted to using basic shapes in primary colours in a sequence to represent concepts or ideas. In a learning context Gilly Salomn famously uses kids building blocks to explain her ‘five phases’ of ‘e-learning’ : learning design for course writers in effect.
Open and free learning needs to preach to the converted
Fig. 1 My big sister and me
‘Preach to the converted’ is the mantra of advertising; increasingly it should the mantra of e-learning, and especially of Massive Open Online Courses which are both open and free. Give potential students what they want in a way that they are already open to. Don’t force feed platforms and tools that are foreign to them, nor pander to the book, pen and notebook when by its very nature if you are learning online you are in front of a computer screen. Think more in terms of the needs of the student, than of the willingness of the faculty to give this kind of e-learning a go. Engage someone with a background in communications.
‘Preach to the converted’ ties into the need to know who your students are – in all their diversity. There’s a bunch of personas used by the Open University to help with this. We’re a handful of shifting types across a spectrum of some 12 personas. This helps educators design for hidden, massive audiences.
Fig.2. The Santorini Museum
Big Sis and me both wanted a book from the Santorini Museum.
We’d done the Akrotiri excavation and did the museum in our separate ways (family event on the island with people arriving at different times and staying in different place. When we met up we agreed immediately at the frustration at no having a shop at either location. You whet your appetite on a subject are ripe for a bit more. I even started looking for a two week course on Archaeology in Future Learn. No book. Not much of a website. Ample content with each artefact.
Visitors to museums are converts; not just easy to sell postcards and tea-towels too, but ready to learn and suckers not just for ‘the book’, but just as prepared to come to the talk, even, these days, to sign up to a taster course.
Towards an assessment of my teaching
I often share a post I am writing as I do so. In this case having identified the story to tell : running a workshop to solve a ‘messy’ business problem I am pulling together or creating supporting images, in the above case a grab and mashup from Martin Weller’s book ‘The Digital Scholar’ – my goal is to be recognised as one. In a forum post as an Open University ‘Master of arts in Open and Distance Education’ (I graduated in early 2013) I suggested this could be achieved in four years – John Seely Brown thinks that eLearning speeds things up, while Weller reckons on ten years.
Web Sciences – faster, rich, responsive, shared …
Life happened at the opening of the MOOC on Web Sciences from the University of Southampton (SOTON) – the imminent arrival of a great-grand child is announced while two in their late 80s make their departures, one with little warning, the other with a reluctant move to hospital.
Born in 1928 or to be born in 2014 …
Keen as I am on ancestry I try to reflect on what has and is changing.
How great in truth is or will be the impact on how we live, love and die? Of course the frenetic, massive Web impacts on the neuronal activity in individual brains feeding us with knowledge, news, information and misinformation like never before, but how much does it change the intimacy of a family, of childhood and education, of working and falling in love, of starting a family of your own (or not) and beyond?
The Web, like a strange digital mist now surrounds us – but in the Darwinian sense does it change anything at all?
Words of a distraught young woman from the Philippines coming out of the recent typhoon smack you in your digital face when she starts with ‘no Internet, not smart phone, no food, no water, no roof on our heads, no medicine … ‘ We will surely reflect on that fact that for all the opportunities the Web it is exclusive and fickle.
Yet it is the speed and ease by which this information is disseminated that changes things. I remember the Japanese Typhoon that I watched on multiple TV channels calling to my son who was watching the same online directly from people’s smart phones.
The new arrival mentioned above was posted on Facebook, the ‘departure’ was a call to a mobile phone. Both will feature online to welcome to the world or to reflect on a long life and commiserate.
- The University of Southampton’s Web Science Institute (amandabobel.wordpress.com)
- UK unis prepare to launch ‘moocs’ this autumn (ool.co.uk)
- MOOC. Study Anywhere Anytime and for Free (johnijagbemi.wordpress.com)
- Amazing announcement!! Mooc makes Oxford online dictionary (opentopictest.wordpress.com)
- In Times Higher Education, on MOOCs (bryanalexander.org)
Mobile learning at the Museum of London: QR codes and NFCs
Fig.1. YouTube video for the Museum of London‘s NFC initiative in 2011
Having picked through links that came to a dead end in a fascinating paper on the variety of technologies and tactics being used by museums in relation to mobile learning I started to see and read more and more about the use of QR codes (those matrix two-dimensional bar codes you use with a smartphone) and NFC ‘Near Field Communication‘ which is becoming an industry in its own right.
Having been kept awake at night about a need for ‘constructing knowledge’ rather than being fed it I knew that visitors, students especially, need to engage with their surroundings by somehow seeking and constructing their own views.
Without QR and NFC the simplest expression of this is taking notes, and or photographs of exhibits – not just selfies with a mummy or your mates. Possibly doing bits of video. And from these images cutting/editing and pasting a few entries in a blog, Prezi or SlideShare. QR and NFC feed the visitor controlled and curated bite-size nuggets, so more than just a snap shot, you can have audio and video files, as well as more images and text.
Fig.2. South Downs Way QR Code.
Successful trials mean that these have spread. Funny I’ve not noticed them living in Lewes and walking the dog most days on the South Downs. I’ll take a look. NFCs have been used extensively, for 90 exhibits, at the Museum of London – so a visit is required. Though I won’t be ditching my iPhone. Apple does not support NFC believing that the technology is still in its infancy … like Flash, like Betamax and VHS, and all that stuff, a battle will be fought over the NFC benchmark.
So 60% penetration of smartphones in the population … most of all of which can use a QR code, but less using a early version of NFCs. My experience?
Fig.3. QR Codes at the Design Museum
Last year a visit to the Design Museum I found the ‘Visualizing the mind’ exhibition littered with QR codes.
They didn’t work. Just as well they had ample computers. How often do organisations jump on the IT bandwagon only for a couple of wheels to fall off further down the road?
Meanwhile I’m off to walk the dog .. then using a trip to see Gravity at the Odeon Leicester Square with my kids to include an educational tour to the Museum of London (always handy to have a teenager around when using mobile technology).
‘REPORTING RESEARCH’ 2013, Interpretation Journal, 18, 1, pp. 4-7, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 November 2013.
Collaboration amongst strangers is a tricky one. I’ve seen it work and I’ve seen it fail.
Fig. 1. Performing in an amateur production of the Caucasian Chalk Circle. The ultimate collaborative exercise?
1) 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).
2) 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, too low. I believe that it matters to be paying for it out of your own pocket or to have a commercial sponsor expecting results. I know that some working for the OU do these modules almost on a whim because they are free and they do the minimum to pass – I’ve seen this on various courses, seen it myself and have had it corroborated by other students. Anyone who is along for the ride in a module that relies on collaboration is a weak link – of course plenty of OU people do take seriously, but some don’t and no line manager is looking over their shoulder. At Carnegie Melon they ran an MA course where students gave each other, on a rolling basis, a mark for collaboration – those with the lowest mark risked failing that module. In fairness some people are not born collaborators, whereas others go out of their way to be a participant, potentially at the expensive of other parts of their studies.
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 years – 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 quickly this became two of us … we gamefully pressed on but at some stage felt we were missing out on the real action so eventually pulled out as active participants.
Then there is a two week exercise in a subgroup of an MA ODE module where circumstances brought a magic bunch of strangers together – this has proved to be the exception rather than the rule.
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 – though the complaint will be that it is always the same handful of people who do everything. In a work or academic setting should everyone be rewarded and recognised in the same way? It depends very much on a group dynamic or bond, a common sentiment that comes from working together in the flesh.
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 largely 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 great-grandfather 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 Blumenthal wannabes – amongst the gardens there are PhD research students growing dwarf barley and weekenders who’ve keep an allotment. Whilst we have interest 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 (visualizer) 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 of full 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?