Monday, November 10, 2008

Groups - networks - Collectives

Two posts by Terry Anderson have made me think over the past couple of weeks. One post about his paper with Jon Dron on Groups, Networks and collectives. The other comparing his ideas on groups and networks with those of Stephen Downes. I particularly liked his ideas of 'presence' and 'emotional nearness' related to groups, networks and collectives as his writing provides clarity on the interrelationship between 'engagement in learning','transactional nearness', and 'emotional involvement' in the three distinct socially connected entities. I have just retuned from presenting at the ECEL conference in Cyprus (Carroll et al 2008) where I showed some of my Design-Based Research that has clearly shown that online presence by students and tutor was very important . The development team tried to create a place that would be comfortable, where people would trust one another. Tutor and students were encouraged to show their presence by using Web2.0 tools, videocasts and chat. A 'Third Place' (as Oldenburg described) loosely based on the characteristics of an 'Information Ground' (as described by Fisher) where the fostering of a 'nearness' in an online place was seen to help people in their learning. At the same time a journey towards autonomy was set into motion, in which the presence of the tutor played an important role.

Paul Bouchard's presentation (2008) at the ECEL conference relating to the dimensions of learner autonomy has been helpful . He identified four factors to learner control: the first one related to motivation, confidence and initiative; the second to control over the learning activity and the third one related to issues of language and communication used in the learning and teaching process. The importance of aspects of economy in learner autonomy was recognized as a fourth category; the choice to learn for personal gain such as for future employment, and the possible cost of other study options. In the Swansea University research students valued the social engagement, the tutor and student presence in the environment, in particular the intimacy and immediacy that videocasts by students and tutors and regular chat sessions provided. It gave them confidence and helped them to make the transition to become more autonomous learners and move out onto networks to find information and to communicate with a wider, less well-known circle of people interested in the subject area. One of the issues that makes that people feel comfortable in a group, on a network, or being engaged tagging and finding tags in an even looser collective arrangement is the level of self-direction that people have.

This didn't seem to be a problem at the University of East London, where Peter Nevin and Hedley Roberts used Facebook groups and blogs to enhance student communication and connection amongst students and tutors on the course (Odell, Nevin and Hedley, 2008). Even though the students were undergraduates from a variety of backgrounds, they took to the new tools like fish to water, which might not be surprising as the tools are being used on an Archtecture and Visual Arts programme where you might expect students to be willing to take risks and try out new approaches. Control of the communication and collaboration was left in the hands of the students which they could access through the institutional VLE, where tutors were in charge of other activities. I was surprised at the easy acceptance of the tools as it took the Swansea University students quite a while of hand-holding to convince them that it was time to be more independent and move from a group-situation to a networked alternative.

Bouchard, P (2008) Some factors to consider When Designing Semi-autonomous Learning Environments

Carroll, F; Kop, R and Woodward, C (2008) Sowing the Seeds of Learner Autonomy: Transforming the VLE into a Third Place Through the use of Web 2.0 Tools

Odell, A; Nevin, P and Roberts, H (2008) Education in your Face(book)!

all three presented at the European Conference on e-Learning at Cyprus 6-7 November 2008.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Survey on 'Learning on online networks'

Downes and Siemens on their 'Connectivism & Connective Knowledge' course suggest that the future of learning lies on online networks, rather than in a structured institutionally controlled environment. They see how the second wave of Internet technologies could be instrumental in moving from a hierarchical teaching approach to a networked approach. As I wrote in my paper for the AERC conference in St.Louis this summer: 'web 2.0 technologies would facilitate the transformation from an educational model that is structured in courses, controlled by the institution using a ‘broadcasting’ model in an enclosed environment, to becoming a model adaptive to learners’ needs, owned by individuals, while using an aggregation model in a personalised open learning environment, and a fluid extension of the wider informal personal space...This resonates with the ideas of Illich, who saw at the heart of the educational revolution in the 1970s the need:
‘1. To liberate access to things by abolishing the control which persons and institutions now exercise over their educational values. 2. To liberate the sharing of skills by guaranteeing freedom to teach or exercise them on request. 3. To liberate the critical and creative resources of people by returning to individual persons the ability to call and hold meetings – an ability now interestingly monopolized by institutions which claim to speak for the people. 4. To liberate the individual from the obligation to shape his expectations to the services offered by any established profession- by providing him with the opportunity to draw on the experience of his peers and to entrust himself to the teacher, guide, adviser or healer of his choice.’ (Illich, 1971, p.103)
His vision was to see people take ownership of the learning process, rather than institutions controlling their education. In order for agency and participation to return to the learning experience, Illich (1971, p.2) called for ‘the possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats’. He saw that the alternative to ‘scholastic funnels’ would be true communication webs. However, moving from an institutionally controlled learning environment towards an Internet based open environment would create several problems and an important question to ask would be if communication facilitated by this type of technology would be effective in knowledge creation? Would communication with global communities of (possibly the same) interest help in knowledge construction?' What about the power relations on a network, would they be any different from a class room? I have hyperlinked a survey here that I was hoping people on the network would be willing to fill out. It should give me an idea of how people feel they learn and create knowledge while participating on a network. Thanks to anyone filling it out!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Connectivism a learning theory?

CCK08 The first week on the connectivism course has been quite something. Many activities to choose from on different environments with varied navigation, many different things to go wrong and a lot of pressure on people to take part in reading papers (put up by George Siemens and Stephen Downes), and also to read blog posts, to write blogs and wikis and take part in discussions. Adrian Hill and I will get our paper on 'Connectivism' published in the September Issue of IRRODL. As it is quite topical, and analyses the validity of connectivism as a learning theory, the editors have kindly given permission to pass it on to George and Stephen to use on the course before the publication date of the journal.

Monday, September 8, 2008

New structures and spaces of learning

CCK08 George Siemens sent all participants of the massive Connectivism course that has started this week an email in which he gave the link to his paper 'New structures and spaces of learning: The systemic impact of connective knowledge, connectivism, and networked learning'. He gives his ideas on changes that have taken place in education under influence of technological development and also quite utopian views on the role of the institution,tutor and learners in the future. He seems fairly uncritical of the negative effects of technology on society and teaching and learning. Two things I would like to say after a first glance of the paper: Our teaching methods have evolved over ages, are steeped in history and tradition. It is unrealistic to expect these suddenly to be discarded because the Internet has arrived. Current teachers and adult tutors might not be aware of opportunities that new technology offer for teaching, but on the other hand, they are very well aware of the things that do work in their class rooms. Why change? Secondly, ever since e-learning has started, research has emerged that clearly demonstrates that we are just at the experimenting stage of working towards a connectist model of learning. Also, there are numerous papers that show challenges and problems to overcome to make it really work (Conrad 2005, Mann 2005). It is all good and well to write speculative papers on how fantastic the use of technology in learning can be; it is quite a different matter to actually make it work in practice. Issues that seem most problematic are: lack of learner autonomy (Kop, 2008), power relations on networks (Conrad, 2007; McConnell, 2005), lack of access to the Internet for particular groups (Selwyn 2006), underdeveloped information literacy and critical thinking; communication as a conversation, rather than to create knowledge and foster learning; a comfortable place to learn in( Woodward et al 2008), to name a few. Yes, I agree with a lot of what George says; once you have bought into technology, you can see the possibilites of connecting with people outside instituional structures, but a lot of research in the actual practicalities will be required before we know how it will be possible for it to work for the majority of people, and not just for the learning technology enthusiast.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Conectivism course

CCK08 Too busy writing academic papers for so long that I had forgotten about my blog. The new course by George Siemens and Stephen Downes on connectivism has awakened my interest in blogging again and made that I get involved in their venture. So far 1600 people worldwide interested in the subject of Connectivism have signed up and the course is in 4 languages. As always the start of a new online course is a bit confusing as you have to figure out how and where to find the most important materials and features on the course. A wiki has been set up the bring researchers interested in the subject together, which is interesting. The problem with global courses of course is that they are global and that people in different time zones get up and go to bed at different times, which makes it difficult for all to get involved in synchronous communication. The first session for instance is in Winnipeg at 19.00 , which means in Swansea UK it will be 1am and not such a good time for me to take in anything about connectivism. I expect though that George will have arranged something as usual to make sure that the Illuminate event will be recorded somehow. I wonder how the session will work. The last one that I was involved in was last year at the connectivism conference with 120 people and the volume of people then caused all sorts of technical problems. See how it goes this time. Good of George and Stephen to take on a project like this. Lucky for them only a small group wanted to get involved in the accredited version of the course. Can you imagine marking 1600 essays or blog entries?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Personalised learning and teaching

Despite current ‘e-learning’ trends towards the more ‘personalised learning’ experience, the concept of ‘p-learning’ is still far from reaching maturity.
The rapid development of technology and exponential growth in the use of the Internet and its Web 2.0 and mobile developments make new and different structures and educational organisations and settings a possibility. Web 2.0 technology can according to Graham Attwell facilitate the transformation from an education model that is structured in courses and controlled by the institution using a ‘broadcasting’ model in an enclosed environment, to a model that is adaptive to learners’ needs and gives ownership to individuals, while using an aggregation and networking model in a personalised open learning environment that is a fluid extension of the wider informal personal space. The personal online networks that people build up throughout their lives provide expertise and knowledge in addition to the guidance that local tutors provide. The learner is at the centre of the learning experience, rather than the tutor and the institution, and is instrumental in determining the content of the learning experience

In the more creative e-learning development that is taking place today, the developer is the mediator between the tutor who writes the educational material and the student who interacts with it. Indeed, it is the developer who recreates the tutor’s educational material into a versatile, interactive and experiential digital package for the student. The tutor brings with them their own individual and unique flair for education and it is the developer’s job to harness this energy and translate it into an online experience. However, what tends to be forgotten in the surge towards ‘personalised learning’ is this idea of ‘personalised teaching’ and the notion that every tutor has their own personal approach and needs when it comes to the design and development of online educational material.

In my experience, the tutor attitudes to e-delivery have ranged from a content heavy approach, to constructivist activities which rely upon learner autonomy and collaboration. Different subjects require a variety of learning activities and the teaching styles of tutors are as wide ranging as the learning preferences of students. The task of the learning technologist is to mould the material into effective and engaging tasks with which both tutor and learners are able to interact.

There is a symbiotic interaction between subject specialists, developers and learners, and my research questions the current development towards a technology and institutionally driven personalised environment. To ensure that in the move from e-learning to p-learning all stakeholders are valued an extensive negotiation process with all involved is required to make sure that not only the learners feel that the environment is designed to meet their needs, but also the tutors. I know that quite a number of designers are working on developing software that will integrate tutor materials, communication tools and Web2.0 technologies such as blogs and wikis. The learner will be able to use these easily, but in all of this development it should not be forgotten how to harness the creative potential and the subject knowledge of tutors!