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Time and effort

The more I study at masters level and beyond what eLearning has to offer, the more I conclude that whatever the platform the learner needs to put in time, effort and engagement. All the eLearning can do is to provide content of the highest relevance and quality in a timely, cost effective, relevant and memorable fashion. Does it motivate? Does it engage? Is its effectiveness measurable? Do they change behaviours? Do they remember or at least have a response to the content?

Learning online it helps to have such a seamless, intuitive and frequently refreshed learning platform with the Open University.

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?

Teaching, coaching and mentoring

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I have done and do all three. Are coaching and mentoring subsets of teaching? Yes, though I don’t have to have been the teacher to do either. Another person can be the teacher and that teaching could surely have been done through a book, video or game? After several months doing a Rosettastone language App where or who is my teacher? Perhaps my wife is my mentor and buying in time with a person will add coaching to the mix.

I wonder if to be taught is akin to taking a train or bus ride, while self-directed learning is like riding a bike? That learning like this is like driving a car where through choice the passengers are either fellow learners and the tutor/educator?

Timing would be a key consideration for me – which would relate to pace, variety, purpose and spreading myself around the ‘class’. I will be in a studio like ‘class’ this afternoon for three hours. The groundwork has been done by others, in this context I am a catalyst and sounding board. The teaching will have been done, I don’t know the students well enough to mentor them so it as ‘coach’ or ‘consultant’ that in small groups they will have me for 10-15 minutes each. I have learnt to set a timer on this, not just setting a stopwatch on an iPhone anymore, but going in with a large egg timer – A bit theatrical but it keeps everyone’s attention. Reflecting on ideas about ‘the lecture’ what the above means to me is exploiting the live nature of it – I even consciously dress for the part.

Increasingly I am coming to cherish the values of teaching live and in the flesh for me ‘the teacher’ and for the students. All the more reason to milk these up close moments and cherish them for what they are compared to being disembodied and at a distance online.

Book or eBook? A case of apples vs. oranges or analogue vs. digital?

Fig. 1. Learning in the digital age. J F Vernon (2013)

You’re missing a trick if you’re ignoring eBooks.

My experience studying at postgraduate level over the last four years, first with the Open University and now with the University of Birmingham as well is that we need to consider and experience the affordances of both.

Fig. 2. EBook vs. the Book. It’s largely down to context – do you read on the go, or in a library? Have you got shelf space?

I will own the book and the eBook in some circumstances as they offer a different experience and options.

If you are studying a subject in a social context online it helps to be able to share what you find and think as you read. I did this with Martin Weller’s book ‘The Digital Scholar’ and found he was reading along through Twitter and my blog. I find where I have the printed book that I take photos of pages, mash these up and then share online – or resort to pen, paper and note taking in the traditional, lonely way. Then there are the huge tomes, some of the history books I am getting through right now that run to 900 pages – it is so much easier to carry around on the iPad. Using an eBook I highlight by themes of my choosing, add notes, Tweet short passages, seek out threads on single characters, link directly to references and post mash-ups from screen-grabs rather than photos straight into a e-portfolio so that the idea or issues are tagged and ready for later use.

Non-fiction books will become like some LPs of the past – do you want all the tracks or just your choice?

If I can buy 12 chapters of a book for £8.99 on Kindle, when will I be able to buy for 99p that one chapter I need? Speaking to a senior engineer from Amazon over the summer (old friends who moved to Silicon Valley twenty years ago) he wondered if the ‘transformative’ period for books was about to occur, just as it has occurred with music.

There will be a better, personalised hybrid form in due course, several of which I have tried. So far they have been marred by only one thing – poor content, the clickable, multimedia, well linked experience is apt for the 21st century.

Fig. 3. Mash-up from Martin Weller’s book ‘The Digital Scholar’ using the App ‘Studio’ to add text and icons to a cropped grab of a page.

Nothing replaces scholarship though , it’s just going to take a while to make the transition.

On the future of learning institutions

Just because an ‘editor’ contributes to content in Wikipedia does not make them an authority. Imagine a feature film or documentary made where anyone can chip in and perform whatever role they fancy. Does this not pander to the poser and the ignorant?

The nature of learning – through travel, online, face to face … and in your head

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I love to travel, not just on holiday with friends and family, but alone. Maybe this happens to you too, but I always find travel, especially new trips and destinations, are a catalyst to reflection.

All I did was take the first train out of Lewes to spend the day at the University of Birmingham.

Two things come to mind that shook my brain: St. Pancras International … and, sounding like a commercial, Virgin Trains. Although the train was quiet two people came through the train to collect rubbish … as bubbly as buttons. Four times. The toilets were spotless. All in very sharp contrast to Southern Trains out of London where everything was overflowing …

St.Pancras International reminds me of the first time I stood in Gar du Nords, Paris and looked up at destinations that included Moscow. Inside and out St.Pancras says that travel is a ‘grand adventure’.

I last studied ‘lecture style’ 31 years ago, yet I have signed up for one of these while I continue my learning journey online with the Open University through all the Master of Arts in Open and Distant Education (MA ODE) modules.

Learning is learning – it neither takes place online or off. It is in your head. It is what the brain is given a chance to do with it that counts.

I can now weigh up the two as I study in two very different ways in parallel.

There is of course ‘blended learning’ too that in a planned way mixes up both use of e-learning and face to face.

The key to successful use of elearning, offline or blended is the same of course – ‘planned’.

I met a fellow student on the MA in British First World War studies who, like me, has just completed a degree with the Open University (OU). He has a BA in History, while I now have the MA ODE. We immediately began to share notes on this ‘new’ experience of making our way to and now being physically present in the senior common room of a faculty on a traditional campus – Birmingham doesn’t look the way it sounds … (Forgive me Birmingham but you have a reputation, which isn’t for grand Victorian buildings and exciting architectural ‘super builds’).

The OU is of ourse ‘open’ to anyone – online learning makes formal learning possible for any of us who either need to stay in one place, or, by contrast, are always on the move. People who need significant flexibility in how they manage their time … and don’t want the cost in time and money to get to a place for a tutorial, seminar, lecture or conference. And people who ‘don’t get on with people’ – not just agrophobia … you know what I mean.

Nothing beats getting to know your fellow students than spending a day with them, during coffee and comfort breaks, at lunch, walking through the campus, in seminar rooms before a talk begins … and on the way home when you find part of your journey is shared. Online attempts to ‘get to know each other’ can be spurious exercises in sharing trivia about pets and holidays. Actually, you can get to know eachother by talking about what you are here to do – the subject matter.

Relationships formed online are akin to a long distance phone call, or letters to a stranger, even, oddly, having a chat with the postman or a builder … you let them into your house.

And your head?

Reflection on a decade of e-learning

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Having not taken stock for a while it was refreshing and re-assuring to consider the Open University postgraduate modules that I have taken, though it has taken this long to understand the meaning of a module that is approaching its final ‘presentation’. In some cases a better word for this might be ‘sell by date’ especially with a subject such as ‘e-learning’ as at least three of those listed below were on their final or penultimate presentation and it mattererd – ‘H817:Innovations in e-learning’ wasn’t particularly innovative for someone who had worked in the creation of interactive and online learning. I’m used to and value the amount of background theory, but I still feel that in these ‘H’ modules that form the Master of Arts in Open and Distance Education (MA ODE) is considerably biased towards learning in formal secondary and tertiary education, rather than applied L&D in business which interested me most – indeed I know of two people across these courses who quit early on because they were working in a learning creation position in business and felt the modules were not suitably applied. B822: Creativity, Innovation and Change was the exception as however dated some of the content (video content shot in the mid 1990s that included companies that had long since gone out of business and innovations such as laptops the size of a small trunk with a carrier bag of cables) the activities and theory in relation to innovation were timeless – it was also an MBA module. Any of us who have taken part in or hosted learning in an organisation involving games of some kind would have found B822 familiar – much of it also touched on the kind of creativity used in advertising, marketing, PR, events and communications.

H804: Implementing Online, Open and Distance Learning (2001)
H807: Innovations in Elearning (2010)
H808: The Elearning professional (2010)
H800: Technology enhanced learning: practices and debates (2011)
B822: Creativity, Innovations and Change (2011)
H810: Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (2012)
H809: Practice-based research in educational technology (2013)

I’m continuing with these modules to demonstrate that the standard I am now able to achieve is sustainable so that working in academia, even studying for a PhD is viable. ‘H819:The Networked Practitioner’ is a new module. Reading through the course notes and first units (it came online today and goes live next week) I can see the care, clarity and thought that has gone into it, as well as the substantial use of a variety of online learning  tools for ‘connected’ or ‘networked’ learning … what some might call ‘social learning’ but here has more structure to it that that (parameters, goals, set tools etc:). It is tailored, every step of the way, to the production of a conference piece – there is considerable latitude here, but what is meant that you have a presentation that may be given in a variety of formats featuring a choice of core themes develop through the module but set in your ‘world’ or field of interest or expertise.

A teacher is taught to teach something in class, not simply to teach.

I  feel that I have learnt over the last three years how to teach online, but I haven’t developed a subject specialism, prefering to date to behave as if I were in an e-learning agency serving the needs of many, disperate clients. For this module, and potentially for one or two beyond, I hope to develop and demonstrate how the history of the First World War can be taught using e-learning – apt as we approach its centenary. In parallel I will be taking a Masters in British First World War studies with the University of Birmingham. This is also a part-time course, and ostensibly ‘distance learning’ – though in this instance the distance component is handled by my driving to Edgbaston once a month for a day of intensive face to face seminars and tutorials. This in itself will make for a fascinating constrast with the 100% online experience of the Open University.

In the back of my mind, whatever the subject, my interest is in how to address the global problem of there being 123 million people who want to study at university, but only 5 million places. Even if every university modelled itself on the Open University there would still be a massive shortfall – the answer must be in Open Learning that is supported, possibly by a huge cohort of volunteer alumni, as well as qualifying participants as they accumulate credits. Somewhere in here there may be a question for me to address with doctoral research.

It’s disengenious of me to say that I’ve been studying online for a decade.

I did a module in 2001 but did no further online learning in the subsequent decade – though I did qualify as a swimming teacher and coach! The reason for thinking about a decade as a period of time in which to study is that some would say it takes this long to become an expert. This comes from a piece of research carried out at the Berlin Conservatoire in relation to muscians and the years of training and practice they need to put in to get them to the concert hall as a soloist. Actually it wasn’t years so much as tens of thousands of hours required – 40,000 I think it was with kids introdcued to the instrument early and pushed by parents and institutions getting the furthest youngest. Martin Weller, Professor of e-learning, suggests that a decade is still the time scale in which someone might be deemed a ‘digital scholar’. John Seely Brown, who has applied learning and e-learning to business in the US, notably at Xerox’s famous research institute, suggested earlier this year that scholarship or expertise of the kind we are talking about may be achieved in five years because online learning can speed things up. People do take two degrees in tandem if they study online. Is there a fast track to a PhD? My perspective as a parent with teenagers is that they could begin a part-time online degree in their A’ Level year and graduate at the same time as getting their A’ level results or the year after.

 

Kiss the frog

Fig.1. ELearning Network team exercise

Throughout my career I have relished the company of like-minds that comes from being part of a ‘trade association’. Since I was a teenager I was part of the IVCA – the communications industry and the extensive use of video in training and communications.

Over the last decade, with the digital takeover and the demise of video in favour of faster, personalised delivery mechanism and smart learning online new associations have emerged. Personally, a Master of Arts in Open and Distance Education (MA ODE) has convinced me that video is a blunt, even bland and potentially forgettable and disengaging response to a learning need – well written text can be read at a pace set by the participant.

I joined the ELearning Network doing a bit online and following various stories. Last Friday I joined 30 or so for a day long series of talks. I was impressed. It worked.

Over the course of five hours there were five presenters – the format was engagement rather than lecture.

It gave me the perspective of the industry I wanted as I contemplate taking my interest in an academic approach to the next step – PhD research.

Where is the ‘smart e-learning’ and what can I isolate into a piece of original research that warrants three years of research and a 100,000 thesis?

I gained insights on:

  1. Composing questions
  2. The role of games and gamification
  3. Tools
  4. Design for social interaction
  5. Designing interaction: games, social, tutorial …

In the process our table invented a game called ‘Kiss the Frog’ where participants have to battle against the odds and each other to ‘kiss the frog’ – so that they too can become a frog and live happily ever after and a game to explain genetics in relation to colour-blindness.

My thirteen years and more studying with the OU has seen how I learn shift.

The current twist is looping back to the less distracted days of being ‘off line’. At the same time I have done a couple of things that are very old school:

1) A ‘Room of my own’ without internet access (my choice) .. down the road with an opt in/ opt out. Also an ‘office’ (I recently bought the domain name Mindbursts.com.

2) Pen and paper … and by that I mean a fountain pen with ink cartridges and a pad of lined paper – not quite an exercise book, but close.

Why?

1) I am easily distracted. Studying with the Internet 24/7 it is too tempting to be checking email, responding to forum messages or just browsing, I miss linking to books and journals I read about, but these can wait. Maybe the impluse to purchase or read another book weill reduce by the time I get to consider it in the wee hours back at home. My ‘room’ is ten miles down the road.

2) Partially this is physiological – I am seeing a physio trying to untangle or unknot some hideous pain in my left elbow which I ascribe to typing up blog entries with my left hand while reclined on the sofa or in bed. Partially it is knowing that there is never a short cut to learning and knowing a subject. I truly believe that mixed methods work – that it helps to take the written word and write it out, and type it out, and talk about it and visualise it. Neurologists will confirm that memory formation requires the  binding of activity across the brain, rather than from just one part of  it.

Meanwhile, I look forward to another e-learning module, H818, with trepidation:

1) I need to demonstrate to myself that I can keep up and even improve on the standard I’m now able to attain. (Time and effort and the only two words to think about).

2) I will be running in tandem with anothe module, taught old-school, at a different university, simultaneously. Already I dread the commute to a monthly day-long tutorial that I can only do by train if I am on a train at 5.20am. It’ll make for a very interesting comparison. If the OU offered the module I want to study I would have done it – they don’t. This surprises me given the Open Learn work they are doing on the First World War with the Imperial War Museum.

Best wishes to all … so much for thinking I’d finished with this. Next up I’m applying to the OU to do a PhD so I might be around for a while longer yet.

NOTES

I started an early e-learning module H808 in 2001 … skipped off the final paper and came back to it all decade later. I have both books and papers from that period which make for amusing reading.

The networked practitioner in e-learning and the 1914-18 War revisited

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I’ve just read ‘The Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to war in 1914’. By Christopher Clark.

More than any book I have read before on the subject this blows away any myths or propaganda – not least the fact that Germany did not start the war, that award goes to Russia with France’s support. I’d have liked to study this period with the Open University but the History modules simply don’t accommodate this. I’ll therefore be going up to the University of Birmingham, in person, once a month for a mammoth day-long series of tutorials and lectures. That’s as ‘distant’ as it gets with very little online support.

A few weeks ‘out of the loop’ (it’s called a vacation) and I feel the knowledge on e-learning I have gained over the last few years draining away – it is such a vibrant and fast-moving area that I feel I need to refresh and update at every opportunity. This is why I am returning to the Open University to study the module H818 The Networked Practitioner. Having already achieved a Master of Arts in Open and Distance Education earlier this year, H818 and H809 which I completed three months ago, will go towards an MSc in Education; not that I am chasing a qualification, rather I went to keep my thinking alert, current and applied.

There’s a practice based element to this which I’ll apply to an long-held interest in the First World War. There’ll be a lot of interest, reflection and soul-searching over the 100th anniversary from 2014 to 2018. That war is relevant to the Europe and wider Europe we live in today, from Northern Ireland to Syria, via the Balkans and the EU.

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