Academic BEtreat – the technical challenges

Academic BEtreat has got off to a shaky start, with lots of technology difficulties. There are sixteen people in this BEtreat (18 if you include Etienne and Bev) and 8 of those are online. This is a great mix of people, all working on very interesting aspects of communities of practice in their very differing contexts. It is this diverse mix of people that will enrich the experience.

One of the principles of these BEtreats is that online and face-to-face participants should be fully integrated, so for the most part the online people are projected into the face-to-face room through video on Adobe Connect – where presentations can also be shared. However, bandwidth issues make it difficult to use the audio connection in Adobe Connect, so we also connect via Skype – but this also keeps breaking up. This makes full participation and engagement almost impossible and detracts from the content. Ironically one of the sessions on the programme today was to discuss the Chapter on ‘Meaning’ in Etienne’s book, which I was looking forward to, having read the chapter and having some questions I would have liked to have discussed (which I blogged about here), but difficulties with the technology meant that the time for discussion was severely cut short and in particular that it failed just as Etienne was speaking – so I have no idea what he said. There is no recording.

We have been told that this BEtreat is trying to ‘push the boat out’ to explore the challenges of integrating online and face-to-face participation in a course and I think we all recognise how ambitious this programme is. We have been asked to be patient (not my strong point :-)) and reflect on whether it is worth it. This is the start of my reflecting and I hope to continue to blog during the week.

So what have I learned from this first day of the Academic BEtreat?

  • In general motivated learners are incredibly tolerant of technical failure. I have seen this a lot in MOOCs and online courses – but I’m not sure that tolerance is always an appropriate response. As adult learners, and particularly as academics, we need to be critically reflective. This does not necessarily mean criticizing, but it does mean not glossing over the issues that need to be addressed. It’s good to see that this year the comments and feedback on the BEtreat wiki are more critically evaluative than they were last year.
  • Much of my past thinking about the place of technology in learning has been confirmed, i.e. technology should be a tool in the service of learning – it should never dominate – unless it is the focus of the learning – and I wonder if that is the issue here in terms of my expectations, i.e. is technology supposed to dominate in this BEtreat? If so then my personal aspirations for and expectations of this BEtreat are not aligned with the design of the BEtreat.
  • It’s early days, but as yet there is no real integration of the online and face-to-face groups. I suspect that some in each group secretly wish that the other group were not there. I remember last year when I was in California attending the BEtreat face-to-face, being so relieved when in one group activity there was no online person present. Last year I felt that in trying to integrate face-to-face and online participants in this way, the discussion for each group was compromised by the presence of the other, and individual voices were hard to hear (in all senses of the word ‘hear’). So far I have not changed my mind, but I am trying to keep an ‘open’ mind.
  • Finally I have realised that I feel like a guinea-pig in an experiment over which I have very little sense of ownership.

So following this first half day, what would I change in the future. Here are some initial tentative thoughts, but I am aware that I could change my mind by the end of the week.

  • For me the programme is over-complex. I was really hoping for depth of discussion on this BEtreat. Difficulties with the technology takes time out of the programme. Recognising that this is likely to be the case, the programme should aim to maximise how the remainder of the time could focus on learning and discussion of Etienne’s book.
  • Perhaps the BEtreat could learn from the connectivist MOOC models, which range from a very ‘hands-off’ approach by convenors (as in ChangeMOOC) to a much more ‘hands-on’ approach (as in FSLT12 ). MOOCs allow for asynchronous distributed learning, interspersed with synchronous online presentations and discussion. Perhaps the balance between synchronous and asynchronous, integrated and non-integrated face-to-face and online participation in this BEtreat needs to be reconsidered.
  • If the intention is to use the BEtreat as a ‘testing’ ground for pushing the boundaries of distributed participation and interaction, i.e. if it is intended as an experiment, then participants need to be negotiating partners in that experiment. One of the differences between the MOOCs I have attended and this BEtreat is that the MOOCs were ‘free’ – I participated in the MOOC experiment knowing that I had nothing to lose. Is there more to lose in the BEtreat experiment? As a paying participant I am not only hoping for increased insights and learning, but also for ‘value for money’. How that is realised I am not absolutely sure, but I think it does affect my perspective of the BEtreat.

These are my personal perspectives, as is this whole blog post. The thoughts here are my own and are not intended to represent the wider BEtreat group.

So it’s on to Day 2. On the programme today we are due to discuss ‘Communities and Learning’, ‘Boundaries and Scale’, ‘Identity’ and “Identification and power’ – pretty much the whole book! Hope the sound works 🙂

3 thoughts on “Academic BEtreat – the technical challenges

  1. jupidu July 31, 2012 / 3:19 pm

    Hi Jenny – with regard to “technology should be a tool in the service of learning – it should never dominate” I want to share my experience of the moderation of online groups which I was doing during the last 7 years.

    My courses last 3-4 weeks, there are pure asynchronous online courses and the participants are expected to invest about 20-25 hours. They are paying participants and expect to progress in their learning.

    Technology is easy easy: learning platform Moodle, use of discussion forum and some materials to read. But nevertheless week 1 is the week of online socializing according to Gilly Salmon. Participants are insecure, they got lost in different discussion threads, they are writing a lot (my last group wrote about 500 contributions during the first week, and 1900 in summary). So in the beginning they are complaining technology: if technology could do this and that, then ….

    But after the first 4-5 days technology is no topic any more. So in our BEtreat I’m expecting that technology will loose its importance today! And we will concentrate on negotiating meaning and time!
    Looking forward to meet you, jupidu

  2. jennymackness August 1, 2012 / 9:43 am

    Hi Jutta – thanks for taking the time to comment here – especially in such a hectic week on the Academic BEtreat. It’s a pity we don’t have more time to talk (perhaps later after the BEtreat has finished), because we have very similar experiences. Although I have not trained as a moderator for Gilly Salmon, I am very familiar with her work and have her books, well thumbed, on my bookshelf. In the past I have written and worked on online courses which have used her model to structure the course – but recently my interest has been more in open learning.

    I agree that participants can soon get over the technology hurdles, if the course is structured correctly and if the technology works in the first place, but I think the issues are slightly different in this BEtreat.

    First, for the most part the technology has not worked sufficiently well for full online participation and interaction – and that is not because participants don’t have the skills – it is the technology itself – and second because we don’t have the time in such an intense course over only 4 days to mess about with technology.

    But when the technology works, as it did for the last session yesterday, it is great. I’m going to hang on in there and learn what I can, even if it’s only to develop my understanding of integrating online and face-to-face participation – but hopefully it will be more than that 🙂

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