learning, teaching and research (archive)

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Challenging or conforming: the art of blended learning

June 21st, 2008 · Teaching & learning

Last Tuesday I went to the latest event in the excellent Talking about Teaching series put on by SDDU at the University of Leeds – Challenging or conforming: the art of blended learning presented by Allison Littlejohn, Chair of Learning Technology at Glasgow Caledonian University. I found this extremely useful and got a number of ideas to follow up in my own teaching and to develop further in discussion with colleagues. The presentation and supporting materials are all available on-line now and the session was videoed but I’m not sure if or when that will be available.

A particularly useful aspect of the 3 hour session was the way it alternated between presentation to introduce both the more conceptual and pedagogical aspects of blended e-learning and concrete examples of blended learning activities. This included an introduction to a number of tools for designing and planning activities, from a simple proforma to specify the problem the proposed activity will address, a brief and general description of the solution, i.e. the activity itself, and the aims and objectives, to much more detailed and concrete specification of the activity – its timings, specification of tutor and student activity, the activities themselves and assessment. We then had an opportunity to work in pairs to propose problems in our own teaching and activities that could provide solutions and begin to construct the more detailed designs. The sharing of these problems and the discussion of the activities suggested was very interesting – from dentistry, the Business School and others.  Allison also pointed us to a number of repositories of blended learning designs and activities that have been constructed in such a way that they can conveniently be repurposed for a variety of different subject areas.

A few points came out of the afternoon that I found particularly thought provoking. Allison is involved in researching and advising on e-learning for large corporations including Shell. Self-paced, self-initiated and self motivated continuous professional learning is becoming a common requirement of employees in the corporate world that many of our graduates will be joining. Employers now claim that it takes approximately 5 years in the job for new graduate employees to bridge the skills deficit for operating in this way and that this deficit is growing. It has also been observed that the massification of HE has led to less student learner independence and self direction than was previously the case. What is required was described as helping the students develop their ‘social capital’, in the sense of developing the networks of resources and people that will provide them with the social learning contexts that underpin much personal and professional development and becoming an expert life-long learner. The recommendation is that we look hard and critically at and learn from the parallel developments in e-learning in the corporate sector.

The opportunities to address these general problems by exploiting blended e-learning are compromised by a lack of understanding of the affordances and possibilities the new technology has by staff and by the difficulty of motivating students to work in this way. This suggests students need to be much better informed of why this is important and why it is to their advantage. This is not the first time I have heard a presenter point to the paradox that students are often very familiar with some of the e-tools and aspects of social networking and often operate in vicarious virtual learning processes without being able to consciously bring that knowledge and facility to the more formal learning arena. I think there are a number of interesting questions raised here about students’ prior experience of formal education and the expectations they come to us with. This ties in with the very revealing account about contemporary secondary education given to us by a ‘super head’ at last January’s L&T Conference. On the issue of motivating and engaging students in blended e-learning activities, Allison said the chief driver of student learning behaviour is still assessment and changing assessment tasks and strategies will be key to our success. Although this is probably true it is a little dispiriting, that we will need to manipulate students’ satisficing tendencies to make progress. This is not quite what I would like to see – students and staff working together in a community and culture of enquiry and knowledge construction in a spirit of collaboration and sharing. But then I am a child of the sixties!

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The world's a twitter

June 19th, 2008 · web 2.0

I overheard on the radio this morning, while scraping the toast, some mention of twitter and the fact that some person in Downing St. is twitting (tweeting?) regularly about what’s going on there. I made a mental note to look it up on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme listen again. Partly because I usually mislay mental notes and partly because my small group of twitter mates might be interested I posted a tweet (twit?) mentioning it. Within a short time someone posted a reply giving me the URL to the programme and how far to fast forward to find the relevant bit (14 mins 30 secs) and telling me that the Today programme  runs a twitter channel itself. Looking at this I see that most, perhaps all, BBC Regional news services have twitter channels too. A little later my original tweet got another reply with a link to the Downing St. twitter channel and to Bill Thompson who was being interviewed on the Today programme, from where I found the interviewer, Rory Cellan-Jones. This in turn led me to another tweet with links to a Guardian article about the Downing St. twitter-er.

I must say I find the twitter phenomenon fascinating. It is ripe for sociological analysis and I’m sure someone somewhere is already doing it. It exemplifies so many aspects of on-line social networking  – networks within networks, the power the ‘friends of a friend’ connections, the importance of reputation and status, the collective and collaborative evaluation and dissemination of information and resources, and much more. Who would have thought that a stream of short messages (max 14o characters), often about where people are, what they are eating, watching on TV, what mood they are in, what the weather is like where they are, that they are in a traffic jam eating chocolate, and so on could also be such a powerful research tool. And the seemingly trivial nature of many posts is not trivial at all in the context of groups of twitter-ers and the nature of their identities and relationships and the reality of their ‘virtual’ community. I’m getting close to abandoning the notion of’ virtual in these contexts. It just obscures more of the nature of these sorts of communities and their relations than it illuminates. The experience is real, the information is real, the people are real, their activities are real and, dare I say it, the feeling of attachment and even to some extent obligation are real. Or at least as real as in some networks and communities I am involved with off-line.

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Blogs and discussion boards

June 19th, 2008 · Teaching & learning

I have recently been helping some colleagues in our Life Long Learning Centre to set up a discussion boards for tutors to share ideas on good teaching practice. We are using an OS product called phpBB installed and administered by our central web team. I thought the system pretty good and have now got an installation of my own to explore.

Use of discussion boards seems to be on the increase again and I wonder if this is a sort of backlash against the relative complexity and time commitment of using communications tools based on blogging functionality. As a great fan of social networking and systems like Elgg and Ning, I have spent the last few years encouraging colleagues to use these in preference to the old fashioned, heavily structures, largely text based threaded message forums. But, for some things, I have found discussion boards in our VLE and Student Portal, the Forums here in Eduspaces (once upon a time) and those available in Ning groups more effective and significantly easier to use. I am gradually forming a better idea of what systems like Elgg are good for and what is better suited to focused threaded discussion. I hope to turn this into some sort of guidelines/best practice document, probably collaboratively written in a Google doc in due course. I would be grateful for any thoughts on this and any observations on your own experience, dear Reader, of the two different systems.

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Today's excellent Eduspaces news

June 18th, 2008 · Eduspaces

Today we learnt that Eduspaces will continue to be Eduspaces (not Educator Central) and is not being taken over by TIG. No offense to TIG I hope but I must say I consider this to be very good news. I joined the TIG site and had a good look around. Good stuff and interesting but with what appeared to be quite a different constituency and ethos to that of Eduspaces.

I have decided to post to my new WordPress blog for the moment and import into Eduspaces. There are a number of reasons for this. I have set up my own domain and installed WP myself and, much to my amazements, it all works! The much talked of WP 5 minutes install was not too wide of the mark. I want to continue to learn about WP and am now using it as as a content management system for my web site too. As it is my own installation I have a great deal of freedom over which template to use and have an opportunity to learn a bit about php, css and so on. I want to be able to install and run Elgg too in due course I feel something like WP with its extensive documentation and relative simplicity is a good stepping stone along the way. The final consideration is the ease of exporting posts, comments, categories etc. compared with Elgg at the moment. Using WP to ‘host’ my posts and then feed them across to Eduspaces seems like the most flexible and secure option and I have noticed several  other Eduspaces’ bloggers doing this now – Josie and Graham for instance.

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DimDim web conferencing and collaborative working

June 14th, 2008 · Teaching & learning

Thanks to my Twitter friends and FOATF I have discovered DimDim . These are a few notes on my first experiment. DimDim is a (still beta) free web conferencing system that can be used by signing up for the hosted service or the OS code can be downloaded and installed locally. To host a meeting the host’s computer needs a small browser plugin installed but attendees do not need this. Everyone needs the Flash plugin, version 9 or above.

Once you have registered with DimDim any number of meetings can be scheduled in advance or one can be started immediately on an ad hoc basis. Invitations are sent out by email. The email provides a link to the meeting and details of the agenda, scheduled time and so on. However, the email does not provide logging in details and any one who obtains the link to the meeting would be able to attend. When an invited attendee clicks on the link it takes them to a joining page that has already filled in their email and the name of the meeting. They just need to enter a screen name to enter. Any email address can be entered here so the meeting url can be sent to any one or made into a link on a web page or in a blog post.

Before letting you in DimDIm does a check of your browser and version of Flash. If it not 9 or above you can install at this point.

Once in there you can see a list of attendees. The main area can be used for viewing the host’s desktop and any applications being run, a Powerpoint or PDF file, or a Whiteboard. This is controlled by the host. There is an option to chat with all – opens chat area – or initiate private chats with any of the attendees. Chat and audio can be disabled for individuals by the host.

If the full screen option is chosen this makes the maximum space available for viewing an application or presentation but some scrolling is required by the viewer to see the whole of the application window unless the host has sized and positioned it on their desktop to fit what area the viewer can see. In effect this puts some contol of the scrolling that is necessary in the hands of the host. If the viewer needs to scroll this can be guided by the host via audio or text communication. The system provides audio and video communication. To share an application the host has to minimse the DimDim meeting window so is not able to see what viewers can see. Control of applications or slides cannot be handed to viewers but they can collaboratively use the whiteboard and annotate slides. Switching between these desktop, slides and the whitebaord is a single click. The screen refresh on viewers’ screens is not bad but there is an inevitable lag.

It looks like a maximum of 20 attendees are possible and only 3 of these can share the microphone (i.e. use the audio channel).

I have tried DimDim this by running my PC as host and a laptop logged in as an attendee. I couldn’t use sound as the feedback nearly brought the plaster of the ceiling!

One possible use of this is as an alternative to Skype meetings. Skype allows multiple users to talk, text and video but all participants need to be registered Skype users and have Skype installed on their PCs. With DimDIm only the meeting’s host PC needs an installed client. In addition there is the facility to share documents and applications.

I am thinking of testing it by running a session(s) for introducing LeedsBlogs, our Elgg installation, to new users to demonstrate the basics of posting, joining a community blog, uploading files, embedding files and images, what ‘friends’ are for, tagging, use of access levels, creating bespoke access lists and using them and so on. Or run LeedsBlogs help desks, or a master class, perhaps….

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WP as a web content management system

June 6th, 2008 · Wordpress

I’m toying with the idea of turning my whole site over to WP using it as a content management system. I assume this would allow me to have a site blog as a tab on the home page. I’ll investigate further. In the meantime a couple of links to resources:

WordPress as a CMS – Content Management System

48 Unique Ways To Use WordPress

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Clay Shirky at the Web 2.0 Expo April 2008

June 4th, 2008 · web 2.0

This video seems to have trouble loading and running sometimes. It is available at http://blip.tv/file/855937 

A version of this talk, Gin, Television and Social Surplus,  is a post at the Here Comes Everybody blog, worth following in its own right. Thanks to a Joan Vinall Cox tweet and a blog post, Waking Up With a “Cognitive Surplus”  by Stephen Downes on Weblogg-ed for sharing this.

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Blended Learning 2

April 3rd, 2008 · Uncategorized

This is a comment I made in the Blended Learning Community in Eduspaces started by Rick Lilly 

Hi Rick. I like the combination of the 1 page handout and the video commentary. It certainly made the hand out and its objectives clear. A couple of quick comments. We are resisting the notion that ‘delivery’ is the best description of what we try to achieve when enabling and supporting learning. It is too implicated in the old knowledge transmission model of teaching. I think the transmission of knowledge is still very important in what we do. However, it is not now the central metaphor for how we characterise the learning process and what we should be doing as teachers.

Secondly, we are very keen to continue with and make better our traditional face-to-face learning and teaching techniques – basically lectures and tutorials. This is what our students want, it is what they expect and it is for many a key measure of if they are getting their money’s worth for the fees they pay.

Thirdly, full-time students take 120 credits of study each year. This typically consists of 6 modules of 20 credits each. A 20 credit module assumes 200 hours study. Traditional face-to-face teaching contact hours in social sciences and humanities for a 20 credit module consist of 1 lecture per week and 1 small group tutorial per week for an 11 week semester. This with a small number of scheduled meetings with tutors and additional seminars amounts to approximately 30 hours scheduled face-to-face activity out of the 200. The expectation is that the remaining 170 ‘independent study’ hours is spent in library work, preparation for lectures and tutorial presentations and discussion, research for and writing of assessment essays and preparation and revision for exams. The whole kit and caboodle. We are developing blended learning in order to give more structure, guidance and feedback for the unscheduled 170 hours.  Precisely how we do this in the context of our VLE, Blackboard, and other on-line resources and facilities is what we are currently thinking about and designing.

This overlaps with some of the discussion in the thread you started in Spaces Central. I’ll just add a summary of our general position on blended learning I posted there.
We see a blended learning approach as a central plank of our strategy for developing students as independent and self motivated learners. We want to use blended teaching to induct students into the research and learning culture and processes we are all involved in, both staff and students. Staff aid students learning by exemplifying and making transparent what they are doing anyway – research and scholarship. We want students to learn the research and evaluation skills, the communication, collaboration and presentation skills and the problem solving skills that will make them their own continuing teachers, individually and collectively. This means we want to help them to develop their own personal learning ecologies, to blend and exploit their most effective learning techniques and strategies, formal and informal, active and passive, and situate themselves proactively in a network of people, objects and resources in order to develop their knowledge and learning practice. We take as given that learning is a social process. So, hopefully, we are developing a notion of blended learning that is more than a set of varied teaching techniques and location. The blend is of learning strategies, learning contexts, formal and informal, structured and vicarious, and increasingly constructed and maintained by the students as developing ‘expert’ learners in their own right.

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Here Comes Everybody – bits and pieces 1

April 3rd, 2008 · Teaching & learning

I have nearly finished Clay Shirky’s new book ‘Here Comes Every Body‘ that is being much commented on in the blogosphere at the moment. For me at least it helps make quite a lot of sense of the current explosion of social networking, web 2.0 developments and the renewed interest in open source software. It has given me a great deal to think about and it will take some time to work through the significance of many of the issues explored, particularly in the context of HE institutions in the UK. I’ll just mention for now two of the things that struck me immediately of interest, starting with a quote from page 249 on the risk averse behaviour of large organisations

In business, the investment cost of producing anything risks creating a systematic bias in the direction of acceptance of the substandard. You have experienced this effect if you have ever sat through a movie you didn’t particularly like in order to ‘get your money’s worth”. The money has already gone, and whether you continue to watch Rocky XVII or not won’t change the fact. […] Curiously in that moment many people choose to keep watching the movie they have already decided they don’t like, partly as a way to avoid admitting they’ve wasted their money. So it is in many organisations. The systematic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.

This applies to the protection of large scale investments and the prohibitive costs of doing something else once the system is in place and embedded. Examples would include investment in VLEs where a great deal of time and other resources have been invested in staff development, fixes and fiddles to make it do what you want it to do (sadly this often means changing your methods and procedures to fit the technology – A about F as far as I’m concerned), and for many a large personal emotional investment in the system.

Another thing that I found particularly interesting was Shirky’s report on some research on originality and ‘good’ ideas within organisations. The methodology, at least as reported, seemed reasonably OK. The most consistent source of innovative and useful ideas are individuals and groups that operate across and therefore partially outside of specifically functional groups. In general terms they can see the broader context but at the same time understand the purposes and needs of the narrower functional groups as well as the strategic objectives and needs of the wider organisation. These individuals have a wider spread of links and more connections between groups. Within the more compact and focussed functional groups the exchange of ideas has something of the character of being in an echo chamber of accepted ideas, customary and implicit attitudes and procedures and a natural tendency to reinforce the comfort zone and the status quo. This is a bit of a gloss, influenced by what i see going on around me, but I think is in the spirit of the report.

This seems to me an argument for developing networks and making it possible for staff to operate or at least think outside their particular silos. I’m sure the social network we now have at my University, based on Elgg,  is making a valuable contribution to this end already. It is also an argument for looking at how units already working across the whole University can contribute to innovation, like the staff development and support units, educational technologists, Library staff and teams and no doubt others. It also is an argument for secondments and internal sabbaticals.

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Blended learning

April 1st, 2008 · Teaching & learning

This is a comment I made on a topic of blended learning in the new Space Central forum on Eduspaces. I reproduce it here in my own blog because a) it needs more work and b) it suddenly occured to me that it is possible for the creator of a thread in Elgg to  delete a comment – this can happen accidentaly, I have done this myself in the past) and I would lose it.

Misja. I think you are right in the early days when computers were seen as an opportunity to create ‘teaching machines’ – program the machine to program the student, a one-to-one transmission model of teaching. Things have moved on a bit I think thanks mainly to the human networks and interaction and the many-to-many communication that is now possible. However, there is still a tendency to see how technology can be used to replicate traditional teaching techniques (on-line lectures, on-line tutorials). As George Siemens says somewhere, the tendency is to force new technologies into old boxes until, one day, possibly provoked by wider contextual and social changes, we realise that they also make new things possible. I think it is these ‘new’ things that can make technology based blended learning different in kind to the old type of blended learning we have always done in one form or another.We hope to exploit blended learning to help us with a number of important educational agendas. Part of the answer to Emma’s very valid concern that blended learning does not simply add to already heavy workloads for academic staff is the skilling of students to become independent and self motivated learners. As someone else said (you can see I’m not much good at referencing!) if you go home at the end of a day’s teaching more tired than your students you’re getting it wrong. They should be doing the work. We want to use blended teaching to induct students into the research and learning culture and processes we are all involved in, staff and students. Staff aid students learning not by doing lots of different things but by exemplifying what they are doing anyway – research and scholarship. We want students to learn the research and evaluation skills, the communication, collaboration and presentation skills and the problem solving skills that will make them their own continuing teachers, individually and collectively. This means we want to help them to develop their own personal learning ecologies, to blend and exploit their most effective learning techniques and strategies, formal and informal, active and passive, and situate themselves proactively in a network of people, objects and resources with a view to develop their knowledge and practice. I have increasingly come to believe that learning is social, through and through, that formal education has tended to over emphasise quite a small subset of learning skills and strategies, and even reflective learning is best achieved in dialogue with others. So, hopefully, we are developing a notion of blended learning that is more than a set of varied teaching techniques and more work for teachers. The blend is of learning strategies, learning contexts, formal and informal, structured and vicarious, and increasingly constructed and maintained by the students as developing ‘expert’ learners in their own right.

How this rather high blown rhetoric translates into actual teaching practice on a day to day basis is another story we are still trying to write!

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