JISC Netskills – The Rhetoric of Openness

The first JISC Netskills online seminar, ‘The Rhetoric of Openness’ by David White was delivered on Tuesday 21st June; if you couldn’t join the session – you can still watch & listen to a recording of the session here: http://t.co/8LlU95O – you can also comment on the recording, or if you’re tweeting use #nstalks.

Dave discussed openness from the perspective of the institution and the student. These are some of the notes I made during his talk, from my perspective and interpretation.

Institutions can misunderstand the open culture of the web. They tend to think more about opening access to their teaching and learning resources (such as MIT  and the Open University  have done) rather than think about how the resources are appropriated. In addition the institution’s marketing department is often behind the drive for openness leading to a tension between marketing aims and altruism. Dave reminded us that MIT have pointed out that their open resources do not provide the authentic teaching and learning experience, which can only be realized by signing up for a course at MIT.

When the marketing department gets involved there will also be a tension between professional production and the content of the resources. In some cases it is questionable whether the effort put into media production is worth it. Dave was enthusiastic about Nottingham University’s Periodic Table videos, which he described as friendly. But it is difficult to evaluate open content. There is little more to go on than the number of hits on the website.

There are many aspects of openness – open research, open content, open data, open practice, open software, open courseware (as in the case of MIT and the OU) and so on. But what does openness mean? Roy Williams, Sui Fai John Mak and I discussed this in our 2008 paper, The Ideals and Reality of participating in a MOOC, where we discussed the possible meanings of openness as being openness as ‘free’, as in beer; ‘free’ as in liberty, or speech; and there is an additional sense of ‘free’ as in transparent, and therefore shared. Dave discounts ‘free’ as in beer saying that open source resources are not necessarily free of charge – they incur costs – but he seems more in favour of ‘free as in liberty’, saying that the Creative Commons license can mean that you are free to do what you like with the open source materials. However, he points out that re-use in this way has been going on for years, but mostly below the institutional water line – students and tutors have been engaged in this re-use.

For students, openness means that they have access to vast sources of information – Wikipedia, Youtube, blogs etc., but the problem is that institutions often don’t allow them to cite these sources of information in their work. In this sense institutions are a little behind what is happening on the internet. This open access to online resources has led to changes in learning and study behaviours in students. They complain that they do not want to have to evaluate these resources but want to be guided to the ‘right stuff’ straight away, i.e. they don’t want to research and if they have to, then see this as a failure of search engines. As has been commented on before, Dave noted that students lack critical thinking skills and the desire to develop them. They are more interested in contact than content. For them contact is the more valuable resource. This highlights the differences between the institutions’ and the students’ perceptions of the meaning and value of openness. It is one thing to be open in the ‘broadcast’ sense and another to be open in the ‘conversational’ sense. For Dave the latter is the authentic bit of teaching and learning, but it is also the bit that institutions don’t want to let go of.

Dave concluded his talk with a call for ingenuity rather than innovation. We need to look at the use of technologies in new ways.

It seems that the topic of openness is quite ‘topical’. Frances Bell and colleagues Cristina da Costa, Josie Fraser, Richard Hall and Helen Keegan will be presenting a Symposium on the subject of The Paradox of Openness: The High Costs of Giving Online  at the ALT-C conference in September. It will be interesting to hear more about what they mean by ‘giving’ in this context.

The second Netskills online seminar, “Supporting Researcher Engagement With Social Tools” presented by  Alan Cann will be on Monday 27th June, 1-2pm in Elluminate.  To find out more about this session, and how to join, visit: http://bit.ly/m61leW

JISC Netskills is also on the lookout for future seminar presenters, so if you would like to deliver a lunchtime seminar (or know someone who does) – get in touch at 0191 222 5000 or enquiries@netskills.ac.uk

Critical thinking

I attended a useful lunchtime session this week at the University of Lancaster (UK)  on the subject of criticial thinking – how to introduce it to students and how to recognise it.

The session was led by Jenny Moon, Centre for Excellence in Media Practice, Bournemouth University, UK, who is also very well known for her work on Reflective Learning.

The critical thinking workshop was based on her book ‘Critical thinking, an exploration in theory and practice‘ which she published in 2008. It was a very interactive session in which we were required to work through an exercise designed to introduce and improve the quality of critical thinking. The exercise that we worked through and others are freely available online at her website. Clicking on ‘Critical Thinking’ takes you to a document full of activities to work on with students. We worked on Resource 5 – ‘The incident on a walk’.

The idea of the activity was to take us through four written accounts of the same incident, each one showing progressively increased critical thinking. We read each account in turn, discussing in a group after reading each account the extent to which the account demonstrated critical thinking. This is a useful exercise as the comparison between accounts highlights the elements of critical thinking and how writing can shift from superficial critical thinking to deep critical thinking. The identification of these shifts then leads to a framework for critical thinking and its representations.

What was interesting about the workshop was how little talking Jenny Moon did, yet on leaving the workshop I could hear people all around me saying how much they had learned.  Of course each person would have learned something different. As Jenny Moon said at the beginning of the session ‘Critical thinking is a different thing to different people’.

What’s wrong with MOOCs? Some thoughts

This was a question asked by George Siemens on his blog and discussed by George, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Dave Cormier and Jim Groom in an open Elluminate session (around 45 attendees in all) on 20th Dec.

To think of a MOOC as being wrong is to think of it as a course. For me a MOOC is the antithesis of a course. The principles on which it is based – autonomy, diversity, connectedness and openness cannot be reconciled with a course. Why? Because a course implies assessment. As soon assessment enters the equation, then autonomy – the key principle of connectivism – is lost.

That’s not to say that within traditionally assessed courses we cannot – as course designers – consider more deeply the implications of designing our courses to increase the possibility of autonomy, openness, diversity and connectedness. But within the traditional system of accreditation and validation there are considerable constraints on what we can achieve. Anyone who is paying for a course – open or not – is going to have expectations of what they get for their money and that usually means, in my experience,  of the level of tutoring/facilitation they receive.

So the question of  ‘What is wrong with MOOCs?’  has to be considered in terms of whether the course is accredited or not. The answer to the question for each is different. For the accredited course there has already been much research on what makes for a good online course and what makes for good online facilitation. Of course – the ‘massive’ part of MOOC means that the facilitators’ role has to be reconsidered. Alec Couros realised this when he asked for volunteer mentors.

But for an unaccredited course – and I much prefer Jim Groom’s idea that we should be thinking in terms of online learning ‘events’ rather than courses  – then , in my view, the responsibility lies with the learner and the whole ethos and ethics of the ‘event’ changes. As an aside – a question that has occurred to me is how is an ‘event’ different from a conference? There have been many successful online conferences, but I do not see an event based on MOOC principles as being the same thing as a conference. If the ‘event’ is ‘not for credit’, I cannot see much wrong with the way in which they have been designed to date. Whilst there are things we might not like and also contradictions in the way in which the basic principles of open courses can be interpreted (see Mackness, et al – The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC), the responsibility for learning is ultimately down to the learner.

What I am currently finding interesting is how difficult it is to apply, in practice, the principles of connectivism  – which I see to be the principles of open courses (autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness) in the traditional settings in which most of us educators probably find ourselves.  I strongly believe in these principles, but find when I try to apply them to course design that they are subject to many constraints, not only externally but also internally, i.e. constraints from my own thinking. If I am honest, it is more difficult to truly change my own practice than I would have thought, whatever my changing beliefs. One of the constraints I encounter – which I think has been raised by Lisa Lane in her blog  – is in the teaching of skills. In the MOOCs I have attended (CCK08, Critical Literacies, PLENK) , the course content, i.e. what we are expected to learn has been loose and within the remit of own ideas and thinking. We have been encouraged to navigate our own way through these ideas and follow our own interests and paths of learning. If we learn skills along the way that is a bonus – but they have not been explicitly taught and they have not been a focus of the course content.

But what if the learning of a skill is the focus of the course – in my case  – the courses I tutor on are for participants who want to learn the skills of e-moderation/facilitation.  Then – whichever way I look at it – however much choice is designed into the course – ultimately the success of the course relies on whether the participants can demonstrate the skills of e-moderation/e-facilitation. And for this they need to be pointed to some activities in which they can demonstrate this. As I write this, I wonder if this is true, but my experience to date is – that it is.

So – to come back to the question of what is wrong with MOOCs – my summary answer would be – not a lot so long as they stick to the principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness outlined by Stephen Downes.  It is sticking to and interpreting these principles for different contexts that is the difficult bit.

#PLENK2010 Immediate thoughts

It is interesting that this course has attracted so many people (over 1000?), but the Critical Literacies course attracted far fewer – and I’m wondering why, since a critical literacy must surely be to be able to manage a personal learning environment/network. Is it because the management of a personal learning environment/network is more practically focussed, but consideration of critical literacies is more conceptual/academic?

I have had a quick look at all the readings for this week. I was intrigued by Scott Leslie’s Mother of All PLE Diagram Compilation and thought I had better try and construct my own diagram – which I started to do and even considered using Prezi, until I realised that all this is terribly time consuming and I didn’t see that I would gain a lot. In my head I know which tools I use, why, when and with whom – I use most of them every day. I also know who I am networked with, which communities I follow and which tools I use to meet up with different groups/individuals. Having said that, looking at the diagrams was a spur to activating my Twitter account which has lain dormant since I created it ages ago. Now seems like a good time to test out whether it should be part of my PLE/PLN.

But more interesting for me is Dave Cormier’s blog post – Five points about PLEs and PLNs – Dave Cormier (Blog post) because he is talking about the related issues and why we should think about this at all. Like him I have always been concerned about the confusion between e-portfolios and PLEs (he didn’t express it like this – but this is the issue that his post raised for me). A lot of universities in the UK have introduced e-portfolio systems which are tied into the University’s platform. (Is this because of assessment requirements or am I just being cynical?). When the students graduate and leave the University they have to buy their own portfolio. It all seems very inflexible to me and ties the students to a system which ultimately may not suit their needs, when they move out into the world of work.

But an alternative perspective on e-portfolios is that at least everything is in one place in what is presumably a secure environment.  The disadvantages of open source distributed environments are not too difficult to identify; for example, you may lose your environment, as when Ning suddenly decided that users would have to pay for their previously free site.

There is also a concern lurking in the back of my mind about the effect of distributed environments on the quality of learning – i.e. the old breadth versus depth concerns. I personally find it very difficult to balance these. I have been very fortunate that my experience with distributed networks such as those promoted by the open courses I have attended, CCK08 and Critical Literacies (I only attended part of this one) has enabled me to experience more depth than breadth, in that I have ‘met’ research partners in these courses and have been able to collaborate in research projects which, as an independent consultant, not affiliated to any institution, would have been difficult to organise without these networks.

For me the  personal/conceptual interactions between small groups are more stimulating/interesting/fulfilling than a wide network of connections, but paradoxically I need a distributed network in order to find the resonating connections to lead to the conceptual and personal connections that I value. Resonating connections is very much at the forefront of my mind at the moment since Matthias Melcher and I have just completed writing a paper on this very topic after months of discussion. See The Riddle of Online Resonance – and yes – now that I have realised that there obviously is a link between the issues surrounding PLE/Ns and e-resonance – this is a shameless plug of our paper 🙂

Learner Autonomy and Teacher Intervention

I am sorry that I missed Paul Bouchard’s talk. I see that the recording has finally been posted today, but I have not yet had a chance to listen to it (so I am more than a week behind now in the Crit Lit course) – but I had to make a long train journey today, so had the time to  read his article…

Bouchard, P. (2009). Some factors to consider when Designing Semi-autonomous Learning Environments. European Journal of e-learning, Volume 7, (2),June 2009, pg. 93-100. Available from http://www.ejel.org/Volume-7/v7-i2/v7-i2-art-2.htm

… which offered some perspectives on learner autonomy that I haven’t previously though about.

For the most part his article reflects my own experience. Online/distance learners often equate the flexibility offered by the environment with ‘easier’, ‘less-time consuming’ etc.  which of course isn’t true – and – as he says/writes, it’s up to the course convenors to make this explicit at the start.

However, I was surprised by the generalisation that distance education equates with excessive teacher control. My experience is that instructional designers may tend to do this, not with the intent of controlling the learner, but because they get carried away with the design and technology and lose sight of the learner. Also from my experience, online teachers/course designers can get carried away with the possibilities offered by online resources/information/technology. Again, they don’t necessarily want to control their learners. Rather it may be that they think that the web offers their learners increased choice in the resources available and therefore increased autonomy in choosing which resources to select, so they overload the course with resources and hyperlinks. In doing this they assume that the learners have the skills to filter and select from the wide range of resources that they upload, or even understand that that is what they are supposed to do.

Alternatively online teachers may be concerned that they need to support their learners and they cannot do this unless they can see them visibly online, so unwittingly subject them to the tyranny of participation in discussion forums, in the belief that this is a form of support.

So I suspect it is not so much a matter of teachers/instructors wanting to control the learning, but more that they may lack understanding of how learning occurs in an online environment, what learner autonomy means and that learner autonomy can be a double-edged sword.

One thing I am having difficulty with in Bouchard’s article is where he writes that the teacher/instructor should not participate on a level with the students. Bouchard doesn’t explain or justify this. For me this assumes a distinction (possibly hierarchical) between teacher and learner and that the teacher can’t learn from discussion with the learners or that the learners wouldn’t know, understand or want this. This does call in to question again, who is the teacher and who has the expertise?

Jean Lave in her article Teaching as Learning in Practice (1996) Vol.3, No. 3. Mind, Culture and Activity, about apprenticeship learning, gives us lots to think about. She discusses the case of apprentice tailors in Liberia and apprentice lawyers in a mosque in Egypt, where there is is a lot of self-directed learning, but it is clear who the ‘experts’ and ‘masters’ are – and the experts/masters do intervene. Jean Lave emphasises the benefits of situated and social learning. Is it possible to have an apprenticeship model of learning at a distance and does having a clearly identified ‘master/expert/teacher’ militate against learner autonomy?

So the two key questions that come out Paul Bouchard’s article for me are:

1. Is there a common understanding of what learner autonomy means?

2. Does teacher intervention militate against learner autonomy?

Elluminate v. Networked Learning Conference

Heli has made yet another interesting post in her blog reflecting on the CCK08 experience following our Elluminate session yesterday in which George Siemens kindly invited us to share our research paper – The ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC.

The link to the recording of this session is here – http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2010/07/05/elluminate-vs-networked-learning-conference/

After my Networked Learning Conference hiatus (as a friend has called it) I really had no expectations that anyone would attend the Elluminate session, especially since it was only advertised a day or so before (although George and Stephen do have huge networks and just a word from them can make all the difference) – I emailed Roy and John saying that I thought we would be speaking to ourselves!

It’s ironic that I spent over £1000 of my own money getting myself to the Networked Learning Conference where we had  just 20 minutes to present our paper, were allowed time for only one question, where the session was attended by less than half the people in yesterday’s Elluminate session and where there was no follow up discussion ….. and yet yesterday for the Elluminate session, I could sit in the comfort of my own home, with a cup of coffee, seated in a comfortable chair, incurring  no additional expense and discuss our research with 40 people! I know which I prefer and I want to thank everyone who attended. There were lots of names that I recognised in the participant list.

I do rather wish I had been a participant in the Elluminate session though. I have never been able to follow the chat and the whiteboard (contrary to popular belief not all women are good at multi-tasking!), so having to focus on speaking and answering George’s questions, meant that I didn’t follow the chat, so I sincerely hope that it didn’t appear that I was ignoring people. Fortunately, Roy and John agreed beforehand that they would keep an eye on the chat. It was unfortunate that Roy’s audio was not working as he would have offered an alternative perspective, as did John through the questions he asked. Just because we worked together for all those months doesn’t mean that we agreed on everything 🙂

Despite the limitations imposed on what I could follow by having to take the microphone, I know there was a lot of chat in the chat room. No-one wanted to take the microphone, apart from John and George, but that didn’t mean that people were ‘silent’. How different from the Networked Learning Conference, where we sat in silence and listened to presentations – although I suppose the equivalent there was that a few people were on Twitter. I don’t know a lot about Twitter, but I doubt it’s the same experience as being involved in a fast moving energetic chat room.

In Elluminate I was aware that whilst I was presenting/speaking, many people, perhaps even the majority were holding conversations of their own, possibly on unrelated subjects. I should imagine that I was only listened to by some of the people for some of the time, but this somehow felt much more satisfactory than my experience at the Networked Learning Conference. In the Elluminate session, people were engaged, active, energetic – there was a palpable ‘buzz’ in the room – or perhaps it was just the buzz of my nervous system jangling 🙂

This experience of presenting in Elluminate has caused me to reflect again on the role of the ‘teacher’ and the extent to which a teacher should intervene or take control in a classroom situation. This appears to be an unresolved dilemma in open courses, particularly massive, open, online courses. As someone said in our research, in these courses, where teachers/instructors necessarily have to take a ‘hands off’ approach because it is simply impossible to interact with each participant in a large open network, there is a tendency for the ‘kids to take control of the classroom’. I think the ‘kids were in control of the classroom’  in the Elluminate session – not complete control because ultimately any one of the moderators could have pulled the plug, but certainly in control of the conversation. This seems to be the accepted norm in online conferencing, so why does it seem more difficult to accept in different educational settings?

Some questions that arise for me in considering the teacher’s changing role are:

  • Does the teacher need to control or direct the conversation/learning? – always, sometimes, never?
  • Is the teacher necessarily the expert in a given learning situation? Who is the expert? How is expertise defined?It’s interesting that the discussion that attracted most interest in the Critical Literacies course was the one on “the evolving definition of ‘expert’ ”.
  • Does the teacher need to intervene in the learning process? When? Why? How much?
  • Is the teacher accountable  for the learner s learning? Always? Sometimes? Never?
  • Does the teacher need to build a relationship with a learner? What might be the ethical consequences of this relationship?

Judging from some of the discussion in the Elluminate session, these questions remain unresolved for teachers moving into massive, open, online learning environments.

Syntax as a Critical Literacy

Week 4 Syntax: in the Critical Literacies course

The ability to recognize and use forms, grammars, patterns and other structural properties of communication. This would include information literacy and ontology of information

An interesting presentation on this by Jen Hughes and Graham Attwell, which Graham makes a blog post about.  Also a very creative presentation – but the content was difficult for someone not familiar with the intricacies of linguistics and I was wanting a discussion about why a week of this Critical Literacies course has been devoted to syntax.

I have just noted Rita’s post to the course blog which is helpful in putting it all in context – as is Stephen’s presentation which was sent to me by Matthias Melcher when I mentioned to him that I had lost my way and was having difficulty in understanding why the course has been structured into these weeks.

For me it would help to focus less on the what (i.e. that syntax is a critical literacy) and more on the why. Why is syntax particularly relevant for us as learners in the 21st century? It really does not help to be absent in the middle of a course!

Optional Readings/References:

http://www.shirky.com/writings/ontology_overrated.html Shirky on ontology

http://www.adammathes.com/academic/computer-mediated-communication/folksonomies.html folksonomies

http://youtube.com/watch?v=BBwepkVurCI Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe – Reality TV Editing

http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/09/future-of-search.html google blog talking about searching

http://www.slideshare.net/librarianinblack/information-overload-is-the-devil?src=embed Information Overload is the Devil – by a librarian

http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/publications/whitepapers/presidential.cfm USA Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report

http://www.ofcom.org.uk/advice/media_literacy/ UK ofcom media literacy

http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/article540.html centre for media literacy

http://www.wikihow.com/Understand-and-Use-Basic-Statistics wikihow:statistics