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Reflections on ONL172

Well, this course is coming to an end and I like to use this opportunity to reflect back and talk about some of the most important and eye-opening lessons I learned.

I feel like the most important lesson for me has been the realization that online learning and online courses are not the equivalents of each other and, while the elements of successful online learning should certainly be incorporated in online courses, online learning is a much broader concept that can be achieved in many different contexts and platforms.

In equalizing online learning and online courses, I always thought of them as something that few select universities in the world should be engaged in and everyone else should stay put with what they are doing. I still believe that providing full online courses is not something that every department should aspire to do under any circumstances, but I am much more aware of the possibilities of online learning and more positive and excited about incorporating different elements of online learning in my own teaching.

Looking back at the different concepts we learned during the course, one of the most useful and thought-provoking ones was the distinction between being an online “Visitor vs. Resident”, in the wording of David White. I always felt something superficial about many of the efforts at different departments to introduce online teaching elements into their curricula.  Learning about the concepts of online visitors and residents made me realize why I felt that way.

One more thing that I learned about and found very useful was that there are so many more useful tools for online collaboration and learning than I previously imagined. Honestly, I never thought of searching for a new tool before, as I assumed if there was a useful tool I should have at least heard about! I was utterly wrong! Now, when the time comes, I know there are multiple tools that have been developed to make online collaboration and learning more efficient and engaging.

When it comes to designing an online course, among other considerations, I will always try to rely on addressing students’ concerns and expectations. The majority of students at any level are still more accustomed to traditional classes, when it comes to coursework, and they usually are confused and don’t exactly know what they can get out of it, when they take online courses. I believe the first stage of any successful course should be an efficient system of gathering feedback at the early stages of the course or even before a course starts.

I’ll try to prepare a distance workshop for a number of Master’s students in economics soon. That would be a perfect and challenging opportunity to design and implement some of the elements of online learning that I have learned in this course.

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When Things Get Real – Design for Online Learning

During these past two weeks we tried to come up with a design that looks attractive and functional for an online course. What we were most aware of during the thought process for designing the course was not to simply add online tools and features to a class that would otherwise exist and pretend we have introduced elements of online learning. As discussed by Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes, and Garrison (2013), “[w]hile it is clear to most that the core of blended learning is the integration of face-to-face and online learning activities, it is important to recognize that simply adding an online component does not necessarily meet the threshold of blended learning as defined here.”

Also, we tried to implement the concept of constructive alignment, and, according to John Biggs, to start with the outcomes we intend students to learn and align teaching to those outcomes.

Having these is mind, more than anything else, I learnt about a few tools that one could use to enhance online learning experience during our discussions and try and errors. As an example, I was (surprisingly) excited to learn that you could run parallel group discussions using video conference tools such as Zoom. This makes it possible for a small number of students (maybe with some sort of common background) to discuss the course material and feel more connected to each other. This is a crucial feature of a successful online course, as it is very easy for the students not to feel being part of a community in this setting. This could, consequently, negatively affect the achievement of learning outcomes.

The other part of this exercise that was somehow eye-opening was the power of relying on addressing students’ concerns and expectations in designing a course. Acknowledging the mind-blowing speed by which online courses are spreading, the majority of students at any level are still more accustomed to traditional classes, when it comes to coursework. As a result, when they take online courses, they usually are confused (at least in the beginning) and don’t exactly know what they can out of it. I believe the first stage of any successful course should be an efficient system of gathering feedback at the early stages of the course or even before a course starts.

Sources:

John Biggs – constructive alignment

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press. Chapter 1 “Conceptual framework”.

 

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Group Formation in Collaborative Learning: A Forgotten Endeavor?

These past two weeks we discussed and learnt about collaborative learning and, more generally, learning in groups. We examined some of the pros and cons of collaborative learning and also tried to learn about the new technological tools that could facilitate that.

While we deliberated over a number of common factors, such as social loafing, that could hinder incentives to learn collaboratively or make the experience frustrating, it struck me that in all scenarios that we discussed or read about in the assigned literature, we took groups as given. In other words, it seemed to me that there is this implied assumption that a fixed group of people need (or want) to accomplish a learning outcome and there is no choice or authority in who participates in what group or if group learning is applicable/desirable in all settings.

Although I agree that it might be the case in some situations that the group is fixed, I would also like to think that an important topic in this whole literature should be assigning people to different groups, exactly based on trying to avoid the difficulties that arise in collaborative learning.

Take the issue of overloading one person who knows more about the issue at hand as an example. The concern is she ends up doing most of the work. The literature seems to be heavy on ways to avoid that, when the group has been formed. Nevertheless, it is not unimaginable to think that there are many situations in which there is flexibility over who is assigned to what group. Think of a learning environment in which the teacher gets to know students’ capabilities before assigning them to groups to do a course project. Then it seems possible to at least mitigate the overloading concern by assigning people with complementary skills into a group.   

This is, of course, only possible if, one way or another, the leaders of the organization/institution have some leverage over assigning people to different groups and they take the time to learn about different individuals’ capabilities.

I know that there is a large literature in management/organizational design that deals with the issue of group formation and I am almost certain that many people have thought about this issue in the context of collaborative learning. I am just unaware of it and would certainly welcome the possibility to read on it if anyone knows points me in that direction.

And, finally, I believe there is nothing wrong with thinking that collaboration might work better in some combinations of subject/outcome than others. If this hypothesis is correct, it would be an extremely fruitful exercise for organizations or learning environments to investigate what features of a task make collaboration more useful.

 

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Being Open: Concerns of An (almost) Rookie Teacher

Recently, I have struggled with the concept of openness in my own teaching in a number of different ways and the topic for these last two weeks helped me reflect on my concerns, clarify a few of them, and even come up more questions!

My last bit of teaching was a full PhD course that had never been taught anywhere else in this format, although the topic is very trendy and there is a lot of interest in the area among up and coming graduate students. Because of its novelty, I had to prepare almost all the teaching material from the scratch, which took a lot of effort and a long time.

A major dilemma has been to publish the teaching material online. There are pros and cons to that. On one hand, since the course has not been taught before, and will likely be taught in many other institutions in the next few years, I would be getting a lot of credit if one decides to use the material I have put together and properly cite me. Also, the thought of someone learning from what I have produced is flattering and makes me feel good about what I do.

But then again, putting all my lectures online makes me nervous since the chances are there would be people out there who would use material without crediting my work. This is especially important to me since I am still considered a junior faculty and getting credit on my teaching from the wider community could be important in promotion decisions/negotiations.

I would like to choose the first path and be open but, frankly, I am struggling to figure how best I could protect the material and lower the chances of someone else copying my stuff. I might be wrong here but, despite David Wiley’ story of this professor who claims Creative Common on his class lectures, I don’t believe Creative Common licensing is much applicable to my struggle here, as I see that mostly fit for artwork or maybe graphs etc., while what I have mostly produced is in form of text.

Among ourselves in the PBL group we have also discussed how one would need to get the proper copy rights before sharing teaching materials, but I guess we left it there more as a concept than something we dig into. I guess I would love to hear from the readers of this blog about the opportunities out there for protecting some ordinary, yet time-consuming-to-produce teaching materials.

References:

Open education and the future, TED-talk by David Wiley

 

 

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Digital Literacy: Reflections on a Department’s Efforts to Be Visible Online

These past two weeks we have been reading, thinking and writing about online participation and digital literacy. Some of the literature assigned to us for this topic was thought provoking and I would like to reflect on it in the context of new developments at the academic department I work.

Since I arrived in Lund as a researcher/teacher 5 years ago, there have been talks about online teaching and the need for the department to go in that direction. Nowadays, there are even grants at the department we can get to develop our courses to be available online.

I have always felt something superficial about this effort and I think I have a better idea why I have felt that way after going through some of the assigned material. In the video on “Visitors and Residents: Credibility”, David White brings up this important question that who the audience is for the material we produce online; those affiliated with our institutions or the larger society? Also, how the department is going to evaluate the teachers’ performance and make promotion decisions based on performance in the online sphere? I have also been wondering, given the myriad of courses available from the leading higher education institutions, why would people be interested in the material generated in an institution, not always at the very forefront of research? I do not believe we have thought hard enough about these questions. The answers to these could have profound effects on our efforts and the direction of digital development at the department.

My understanding of the current atmosphere is that most teachers who are considering developing courses and offering them online, have the tendency to be a visitor; to (in White’s words) “think of web as a collection of tools, decide what they want to do, pick a tool and do it”. To be successful in this arena, I believe the department needs to generate incentives for the teachers to locate themselves towards the residence end of engaging digitally. My suggestion is that before offering grants to develop online courses, the department challenges teachers on thinking about how they intend to move beyond just offering a course on the net and propose how they want to transform the teaching landscape by both becoming residents themselves and encouraging intended students not to think of the course as a task but a place to be and learn and, as Belshaw put it, to “focus on their interests and to motivate them to get digital capabilities”. Food for thought!

Resources:

1) David White: Visitors and residents (part 1)

2) David White: Visitors and Residents: Credibility

3) Doug Belshaw: The essential elements of digital literacies