learning, teaching and research (archive)

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Ideas scratch pad – collaborative learning and social constructionism

June 15th, 2009 · Teaching & learning

One reason I started blogging nearly 4 years ago was to keep a sort of scratch pad of ideas, quotes, etc. that are useful and thought provoking. On the whole I haven’t done this but its never too late!

Interesting article on how MIT have discovered that small group collaborative work by students has improved learning of basic physics http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/us/13physics.html?_r=2&em.

“Just as you can’t become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV,” Professor Mazur said, “likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it.” I suppose you can demonstrate the thought processes in a lecture but this is not the same as the students going through it themselves and applying them to other similar problems. And many lectures do not demonstrate the thought processes – they report on the finished products.

The other thing I was pondering on today was how to get across the idea to research methods students that ‘social constructionism’ was unavoidable regardless of what methodological approach taken. This comes up in any debate about the differences between quantitative and qualitative methods and their respective strengths and weaknesses. Qualitative methods are accused of producing subjective  ‘just so’ accounts of behaviour and motivations; qualitative research is accused of shaping the outcomes by imposing meanings on questionnaire respondents that force data collected into preconceived theoretical structures – the so-called ‘imposition of meaning’ charge usually made against quantitative investigators. What is often missing from these debates is the fact that any account regardless of the research method used is a social construction. This is no more or less a problem (if it is a problem) for quantitative and qualitative research methods. Social constructionism, properly understood, is not optional. To say ‘I am not a social constructionist and I don’t believe in it’  makes as little sense as saying ‘I don’t use language  and I don’t believe in it’ and no doubt offer to argue the case for as long as you like.

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LUDOS, metadata and other things

June 7th, 2009 · Uncategorized

I went to 2 meetings today and learnt something from both. The LUDOS project (Leeds University Digital Objects) was very interesting. I am particularly interested in repositories of this kind as a trend is emerging for writing modules around publically available learning objects and resources of various kinds. Module design will provide a rationale for study, a structure, learning outcomes and objectives, support and assessement but increasingly the bits an academic will write will be scaffolding and wrap-around materials that integrate and exploit learning resources available elsewhere. There has been an increasing emphasis in various Govt. documents and reports relating to education calling for the provision of open learning content (OLC).

This raises the question of metadata, a subject I found unexpectedly interesting! As Libby Bishop said in her very impressive presentation about the Timescapes project that is using the LUDOS repository, “metadata is just data about data”. The whole point about learning and research objects in repositories is that they should be discoverable and used, again and again. This means discoverable by the right people across a range of different disciplines and research areas. An image of a human rib cage will be of interest in a medical context and could easily be described with metadata that would be found by medical reseachers and teachers. But it may also be a very good example of a cantilever system (it may not; not my area, but you get the point) that would be of interest to engineers. However, it would be unrealistic to expect the image to have engineering metadata formally attached to it by its originators. It would perhaps only be seen as as interesting and useful object for engineering students or researchers by an engineer who had nothing to do with the original contex of the creation of the object. This is where user generated metadata comes in – social tagging. A particular engineer may have an interest in looking for examples of engineering principles in Nature and would perhaps, thinking out of the box, look for images of human anatomical bits and pieces as examples, structural, hydraulic perhaps, who knows. She may well find stuff and tag it (add metadata) with her and her students’ interests and objectives in mind. This is where truly ‘open’ content with a user tagging facility comes into its own. And why not go a step further and add a commenting and discussion layer to the repository too. The objects come alive via the animation of the dicussion. Perhaps.

This whole business of metadata is so vital for the whole archive/repository and open content movement and far more important and interesting than I thought. The issue is epistemological in its scope. In fact ontological! What more could a professional procrastinator with an intellectual bent ask for?

The second thing I discovered today at a VLE Project meeting is that 75% of ‘visits’ by students to the VLE are from off campus – 25% from Halls and 50% from who knows where. We now need data on peaks of activity to supplement this picture. Hundreds of students logged in on Christmas day and 1 member of staff was logged in at the stroke of midnight 31st December 2008. That doesn’t sound like much of a party!

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6 degrees of separation (or network theory)

June 5th, 2009 · web 2.0

I watched a fascinating programme on BBC TV tonight called Six Degrees of Separation.  I decided to watch it again on the BBC iPlayer and make notes in order to post on it in some detail later. Unfortunately it looks as if it will not be available to play again. So I thought I would jot some notes here anyway before I forget and try to follow the ideas up later via other sources. It seems that ‘small worlds’ connect to big worlds via a small number of connections. Only a comparatively small number of links between small worlds has the effect of shrinking the whole network significantly. This seems to be a universal feature of all real world networks. These fairly few interconnections through which most traffic passes are called ‘hubs’. Apparently there is a mathematical formula that tells us how many hubs in a given network are likely to exist. A network can survive any amount of nodes/connections being destroyed but not if hubs are destroyed.  Using the WWW and page linking as an example, the scientist in the programme said you would assume that the distribution of pages and the number of links they have made to them would be a normal distribution, a few with no links to them perhaps, a few with a 10s of thousands or more links to them but the majority clustering symmetrically round a mean number of links. I don’t know why we should assume that, but he said we should. However, on inspection it seems the distribution is highly skewed with a very small number of sites with massive number of links to them (i.e. Google, Amazon, etc.) and a rapid fall off and very long tail of millions of pages with very few links to them, down to zero. This is what I would have expected, but then I’m obviously a bit weird. The point is that if one of these hubs goes down very many small word connections go down with them.

The 6 degrees of seperation refers to the notion that, pick any living individual in the world, you will only be a chain of 6 people who know people who know him or her.  This was tested in the programme by identifying a Prof in Boston USA and giving 40 packages to random people all over the globe. They had to pass the package on to someone who they felt might have some chance of knowing the Prof or at least knowing someone that might know someone (and so on) that might know the Prof. For a woman in a village in Uganda it turned out to be a relative who knew someone in the US. The programme followed this package and sure enough it was eventually handed to the Prof by someone who was known to someone known to someone (and so on) who new the original woman in the Ugandan village.  All dramatic stuff until at the very end of the programme they quietly mentioned that only 3 of the 40 packages got through! This was the result of  a similar experiment reported by the BBC on August 2008 – Study revives six degrees theory.  However, what are the implications of this for learning and research networks? Well the good news is that I am  probably only 6 steps away in a  potential communication chain with the best brains on any subject you care to mention. The bad news is I have no idea how to tap into that brain via this chain. I may as well just email the expert in question directly and ask a question. I think the notion  of hubs may be more interesting in practical terms. Who or what site in an expert’s small world makes the expert’s knowledge available. I think this is common sense really. If you want to know what current thinking is on, say, network theory, or connectionism (George Seimens) then who’s doing the research, who is reporting on it, summarising it, discussing it? There’s your hub. There is your link into the smaller experts’ network of expertise.  It is obvious, I think, how important are digital presence and reputation in these matters. It is these plus exposure, a willingness to do business in public, that creates the hubs of learning and research networks. Thank goodness for these people. Without them my personal learning/research network would be in serious trouble. One question might be, why do they do it? Some for PR and marketing perhaps, some because they explicitly want to build a digital presence and reputation perhaps. For many I am sure it is because their followers are part of their learning/research networks from whome they feedback, comments, discussion, sharing ideas and resources. It also allows a powerful mixture of formal, informal, serendipitous (!) and vicarious learning.

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First blog winner in the Orwell Prize for political writing

April 23rd, 2009 · Uncategorized

My last post was about the claim that blogging is in decline or at least morphing into something else. There has also been speculation that political and media blogs feed off mainstream media and if this declines becasue of the bloggers, the bloggers will decline too as the symbiotic relationship falls apart. However, many blogs do not rely directly on mainstream media, for instance those that relate to personal experience and observations. For the first time the Orwell Prize has included a category for blogs as well as books and traditional journalism. The winner is Night Jack, the anonymous blog of a serving police officer. I’d never heard of it before but, having had a quick read of some posts and the comments, have found it a bit of an eye opener. As someone who used to teach the sociology of crime covering policing issues, ‘cop’ culture, prisons etc. I  can see this sort of blog as a useful source of controversy and discussion.

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Blogs are dead. Long live the blog.

April 20th, 2009 · Wordpress

It is rumoured that blogging running out of steam. Several colleagues in the educational bloggersphere have reported that they are not blogging as much as usual and are tending to be more active in Twitter. I am also aware of a few bloggers who have stopped blogging as they feel pressurised by the reputation and expectations they have built up with their readers. One or two have since returned having established more realistic ‘rules of engagement’. The article in today’s Guardian in the New Media section, a cut down version of a blog post by Andrew Keen, touches on this – Blogs are dead. Long live the blog. It seems blogging is transforming itself and in the process becoming more like the hub of a personal learning/research environment rather in the way some envisiged from the start.

“Blogs will become aggregation points,” the shamefully youthful, soft-spoken Mullenweg explained, as he mapped out the future of blogging for me between bites of Dutch smoked salmon. “They will become our personal hub. Places where we store all our personal media content such as our flickr photos and Twitter posts.”

I suspect that Mullenweg is right. When blogging was invented in the late Nineties by my dear Berkeley friend and neighbor Dave Winer, it represented an easy self-publishing tool, a simple way to publish dirty great lumps of one’s own static text. But just as the Internet has dramatically evolved over the last ten years from a self-publishing into a real-time broadcasting platform, so blogging is transforming itself with equally dramatic vigor.

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The future size and shape of the higher education

July 11th, 2008 · web 2.0

The future size and shape of the higher education sector in the UK: threats and opportunities is a report just released by Universities UK that assesses the impact of projected demographic changes for universities, as described in their press release.

The demographic changes forecast say that the majority age group – 18 to 20 – UK universities recruit from will diminish sharply over the next 10 years and, according to one of the 3 scenarios offered, a smaller number of HE institutions will survive to enjoy a renewed growth of this age group from 2019 to 2027. Increased competition for students may lead to a privatised cherry-picking sector emerging and increased involvement of corporate sector initiatives. Competition is likely to focus on over-seas and non-traditional work-based students. There is much to ponder on in the report and hopefully our top bananas and grandes fromages are on la case. The general position is a distinction between two possible impacts of technology in teaching and learning. The revolutionary potential is for the growth of global, online independent study with little or variable institutional affiliation. The evolutionary trajectory would lead to the increased use of information and communications technology (ICT) in delivery and learning management but without threatening institutional patterns. The report offers 3 possible scenarios and I have just picked out the implications and possible role for e-learning.

The first scenario, ‘slow adaptation to change’ states that “There is only modest investment in e-learning so that it remains a relatively small part of the total learning experience for most students”.

The second scenario, ‘market driven and competitive; is where “non-traditional providers identify market opportunities and essentially cherry pick in those areas with low entry costs, sometimes in partnership with established HEIs”. Here there may be “more widespread investment in e-learning particularly by larger institutions in partnership with private sector organisations with a much increased requirement on staff to provide academic support for students on a flexible basis”.

The third scenario, ’employer-driven flexible learning’ is characterised by “the coming together of a serious squeeze on funding for higher education with increased regulation of the purposes of the public funding element; the full development of technologically based learning through significant public and private investment; and the triumph of employer-led demand for part qualifications”. In this scenario “HE institutions develop partnerships with major commercial players to become leaders in the technologically-based learning field”.

With its considerable investment in the new VLE and a commitment to blended learning that fits very well with markets for part-time, flexible, work-based and non-traditional students, several leading UK universites seems to be positioning themselves for the second and third scenarios. If considering developing partnerships with the corporate sector we will need to look carefully at the staff development and training strategies they are already developing, often well in advance of anything that is going on in the UK HE sector, and what technology platforms and applications they are using. It is unlikely they will be the standard fair of VLEs and MLEs favoured currently by Universities. Interoperability and universal standards will be key and the ability to integrate different systems seamlessly. Many current and developing web 2.0 technologies are well ahead of what is offered by most conventional and proprietary VLE and MLE offerings.

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Knowledge in an information society

June 29th, 2008 · Uncategorized

I have been wrestling lately to understand the difference between knowledge and information. I am finding this very difficult. What adds to the difficulty is that, of course, both terms are social constructs. There is nothing in the world that is either knowledge or information outside of what individuals or groups so label.This doesn’t make them unreal of course. The prompt for this is a couple of observations on the nature of the so-called Google generation. One in particular is by Sir Ron Cooke.

3.14 But there is reason to believe this ready access to content is not matched by training in the traditional skills of finding and using information and in “learning how to learn” in a technology, information and network-rich world. This is reducing the level of scholarship (e.g. the increase in plagiarism, and lack of critical judgement in assessing the quality of online material). The Google and Facebook generation are at ease with the Internet and the world wide web, but they do not use it well: they search shallowly and are easily content with their “finds”. It is also the case that many staff are not well skilled in using the Internet, are pushed beyond their comfort zones and do not fully exploit the potential of Virtual Learning Environments; and they are often not able to impart new skills to students. (On-line Innovation in Higher Education Professor Sir Ron Cooke).

The gist of the argument I am following up is that in the new ‘free market’ in information offered by the web does not translate unproblematically into a free education or to the process of building knowledge. Access to information is one thing. Having the information literacy skills to turn the information into knowledge is quite another. Information needs a context to inform what counts as information and a context for evaluating available information.  That context is provided by knowledge. So I’m getting a picture of the relationship between information and knowledge that sees information as feeding the knowledge construction process. There seems to be a movement from existing knowledge to the setting of a problem or defining an objective that requires information. The information is specified and evaluated on the basis of knowledge and integrated into the knowledge building process accordingly.

Of course the distinction between information and knowledge (where does data fit in?) may be too crude. And as was noted at the beginning, they are both social constructs of one sort or another. There is nothing in ‘nature’ that is prelabeled as one or the other. It’s ‘us’ constructing the concepts and looking for the demarcation criteria. If this is the case then perhaps an analysis of common usage would be a clue. What distinguishes the terms in actual use? As a preliminary contribution to this, it seems to make sense to talk of information processing but the notion of knowledge processing doesn’t sound quite right. Perhaps knowledge is the outcome of information processing. But this would suggest a dialectical relationship between information and knowledge not dissimilar as that between facts and theory. Information is only information to the extent it is pre-specified in some way by a knowledge context. Knowledge is the outcome of information processing but not just information processing.

Another approach would be to think of the current focus in Higher Education on knowledge transfer. We don’t advertise these endeavors as information transfer. What is it that the notion of ‘knowledge transfer’ captures and promises that ‘information transfer’ doesn’t?

My main interest in this is what it implies for how we understand learning and the role of professional educators. If knowledge is simply information we have it in abundance and its out there for any one that wants it. But I wouldn’t want surgery conducted on the basis of Googled information or social policy made on the basis of Googled undergraduate essays. Clearly information is a precondition for knowledge but knowledge is required to make judgments and build on experience, our own and others. Knowledge provides the context for giving significance to information and for connecting it to decision making processes and action. The model that seems to be emerging here is that of students + information + teachers = knowledge creation. This sounds like a community of learners and learning objects. The specific role for teachers seems to be a combination of a model of professional learning (i.e. an expert learner), a learning mentor and a knowledge broker. This doesn’t seem to be far away from the model of apprentices and master practitioner. A key characteristic of an apprenticeship is membership of a community of practice where formal, informal and vicarious forms of learning are available. What would the process of module design, learning and teaching and assessment look like on this model?

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Online Conferences

June 26th, 2008 · web 2.0

Over Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week I attended the Emerge online conference Digital Communities & Digital Identities. (Josie Fraser, who did a great job organising it, has posted on this in more detail). I contributed as a presenter some time ago to a JISC Webinar on Web 2.0 applications for HE but this was the first full-on on-line conference I have attended and it worked very well. The sessions were run in Elluminate and all the features were used, breakout group sessions, whiteboard, slides, video etc. The audio quality was pretty good (once speakers got their levels right and everyone turned their speaker off in open mic sessions!).

I was surprised how useful the chat window was for sharing ideas, making comments and asking questions. There was some real brainstorming going on. It contributed significantly to the value of the presentations and is an aspect of on-line conference sessions that would be difficulty to replicate in a ‘real’ conference (unless everyone had a laptop and used a web service like Cover It Live – now there’s a thought). The chat really enhanced the sessions, made it easy for the presenter to see what was interesting the audience and helped give a focus to the audio and text discussion at the end and the summing up. It also was very sociable and entertaining! At times it was a bit like a group of naughty school kids chattering, swapping jokes, and winding up each other and the presenter. Personally I felt the sense of community grow throughout the 3 days and felt this made a significant contribution to ambience of the serious discussion too.

I felt pretty comfortable in the environment quite quickly once I got the hang of all the bells and whistles and there was quite a lot of spontaneous mutual support and advice as the community sorted itself out. One of the ‘old hands’ at this sort of thing remarked how better we had become operating in this sort of environment, not just the techical issues of knowing how the functions and tools work but how to make effective use of them in the presentations and the peripheral activities around them. I guess we will all be experts at this in a few years time, and hopefully our students will learn good and effective practice in these environments while they are with us.

I am attending the Next Generation Environments JISC conference next week as a member of a discussion panel but this is a normal face-to-face conference. Several people who were ‘at’ the Emerge on-line conference will be there and I am looking forward to comparing notes. I think on-line conferences will never replace f2f for many reasons but as additional and in-between events I think they are enormously valuable and effective. There can be more of them, they can be highly focussed (mini-conferences) with more targetted agendas, they are cheap (often free) and do not require travel and accommodation. And of course, the 2 modes can be merged when f2f conferences also run Elluminate (or another suitable system) and provide wikis, social networking and blogging. This opens up conferences to individuals who cannot other wise make it. And often the sessions can be recorded.

There is a growing understanding of the main differences and the main pros and cons of each conference mode. One disadvantage of the on-line mode is that I had to buy my own beer. On the otherhand I didn’t make a fool of myself at the disco. Actually the Emerge conference did have a very successful social event in Second Life with a DJ and fashion show. Sadly I couldn’t make it because I found my home PC was under spec for the new SL client and it wouldn’t install.

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Amateur enthusiast captures electrical storm on Mars

June 23rd, 2008 · Uncategorized

True, I had had a couple of glasses of Rioja but this news video brought a tear to my eye. What’s that all about then?


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June 22nd, 2008 · Uncategorized

Chris Sessums posted two days ago on what makes his personal learning environment. Academics tend to think more in terms of research and scholarship rather than learning which is both a pity and a mistake. I have for sometime been trying to persuade academic colleagues that they, just like our students, are first and foremost learners. OK, hopefully we are pretty competent learners, even perhaps expert learners, and our students are generally still learning to be learners, sort of ‘apprentice’ learners. But I think the learning to learn business doesn’t end for any of us these days, not even academics.

Chris invited us to tell what our personal learning environments consist of. Here goes a first shot at it.

Text books, research monographs and papers, libraries, journals, newspapers, TV and radio news, RSS feeds from selected news and information sources (e.g. BBC, Earthwire, CommonDreams, Union of Concerned Scientists, RealClimate, etc…).  Google Scholar.

Novels, films, TV and radio documentaries. Biographies, autobiographies, political, economic and history books. Friends and family. Listening to my wife.

Conferences. Conference bars. Staff development events in my Uni. Email correspondence with colleagues.

LeedsBlogs (Elgg based social community). Lurking in a number of Ning communities. Eduspaces. A fairly extensive, mainly educational, blog roll.

I’m sure I can add to this with a bit more thought and imagination. Like Chris says, it’s all networks of one sort or another. Even to engage with a journal article is to enter into some sort of dialogue with the author, their status, reputation and the context in which they wrote the article. For me it is always engagement and dialogue with others, face-to-face, on-line, synchronously, asynchronously, or with the words of past generations. Marx, Weber and Durkheim, Foucault, Chomsky and Alan Bennett are all nodes in the networks that make up my personal learning environment.

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