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.