#openedMOOC Week 4: Open Teaching

The topic for this week is ‘Creating, Finding and Using OERs and a lot of resources have been provided to follow up on this.  More interesting for me, was the initial discussion in the Week 4 videos about open pedagogy and how networks can enable learning. This left me with one or two questions to reflect on.

Those who advocate open education make a strong case for the advantages of learning in a distributed network rather than from one source, such as a teacher or a book. George Siemens tells us that his network is his brain and that learning is less about what we know and more about how we are connected. I found myself wondering whether it is as simple as this. Whilst of course it is possible that knowledge can be found in the connections in your network, it’s also quite possible that this knowledge doesn’t amount to much. As George says later on in the video:

“…. you get a lot of garbage in there, and you get a lot of stuff that’s not relevant. So then you need that feedback system that helps to push things to the surface.”

George explained that when he and Stephen Downes first began to discuss the meaning of ‘open’ in relation to education, they wondered whether it was possible to do for teaching what MIT had done for content. The story of how MIT opened its courseware to the world can be found on their website, but I remember MIT explaining at the time (in 2001) that what they weren’t offering for free to the world was their teaching, and it was their teaching that would make a difference.

In 2008, George and Stephen wanted to make not just content, but also pedagogical practices open and hence the first MOOC was born in the form of the open course ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’, better known as CCK08. They wanted to demonstrate that their practice was different because it did not rely on the conventional method of the teacher being the exclusive or primary node in the online network. At the time, this was how many people understood education – small groups of students attending to one teacher/expert, i.e. the teacher was the hub of the learning experience, which was based on a hierarchical relationship between the students and their teacher. (Image A in the Figure below)

Image from – https://visualisingadvocacy.org/blog/if-everything-network-nothing-network

Instead, George and Stephen envisaged the learning environment as a network in which there is no primary node and everyone teaches each other. (Image C in the Figure above). The argument George makes is that given that everyone has a different knowledge profile then we can teach one another almost everything. Quoting from the video, George says:

“If I have an idea to express myself, if I have an infrastructure to share what I know, and if there are corrective mechanisms within that infrastructure that provide feedback to the users of that infrastructure, that’s all you need for global knowledge generation. It’s the ability to solve complex problems that are novel in our era and we simply cannot solve them with a hub and spoke model of the expert.”

George uses the example of finding a solution to the problem of the SARS virus to illustrate how networks can solve problems.

These ideas are often discussed in relation to open learning, but despite hearing this for the first time in 2008, and despite recognising the value of networks for open learning and collaborative problem solving, another question I have is: Does declaring what we know or sharing your ideas, equate to teaching?

For some time now I have been interested in Gert Biesta’s concerns about the shift from teaching to learning. Biesta (2013) describes the focus on learners and learning as ‘learnification’, writing:

“The quickest way to express what is at stake here is to say that the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that they learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships”. p.36

Biesta describes teaching as a gift, in which the teacher can bring something radically new to the situation. He says that being ‘taught by’ is radically different to ‘learning from’ and writes:

“… for teachers to be able to teach they need to be able to make judgements about what is educationally desirable, and the fact that what is at stake in such judgements is the question of desirability, highlights that such judgements are not merely technical judgements—not merely judgements about the ‘how’ of teaching—but ultimately always normative judgements, that is judgements about the ‘why’ of teaching”. p.45

For Biesta,

” …. teaching matters and [..] teachers should teach and should be allowed to teach.” p.36

Biesta’s work raises the question of whether large scale open teaching is possible and whether it is true that we can teach each other almost anything. If teaching is a gift, do we all have that gift in equal measure?

My final question relates to George’s comment, which he made more than once, that the network structure should incorporate corrective mechanisms. How does this happen?

In research that Roy Williams, Regina Karousou and I published in 2011, we argued that

“…. considerable effort is required to ensure an effective balance between openness and constraint’ and that in open learning environments ‘a system of negative constraints [is needed] which determine what is not allowed to happen, rather than specifying what does have to happen”.

George suggested that corrective actions might include the possibility of upvoting or downvoting posts and contributions to the network. The problem with this is that it could lead to homogeneous groups with only the people who agree with each other upvoted.

The issue with negative constraints or corrective mechanisms is that they leave us with the question ‘Who is responsible?’ and if we start thinking like this, then we are beginning to get back to hierarchies.

For me it’s not clear what we mean by open teaching. If it means do your teaching in the open, as in a MOOC, then that’s fine – but if it means that teaching is reduced to Biesta’s learnification, then I think there remain many unanswered questions as to how teaching works in open networks.

References

Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6 (2), 35–49. Retrieved from https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/pandpr/article/download/19860/15386

Williams, R., Karousou, R. &  Mackness, J. (2011) Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved from  http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883

Working in Blackboard

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 17.26.29Source of image

Fifteen years ago I was working in an institution which invested in Blackboard as its first VLE. Looking back, I remember how relieved I was when the institution got Blackboard. We had been running a distance learning programme by email and paper correspondence. The mixed messages going to the students by email from all the different tutors on the programme was a bit of a nightmare. Blackboard saved us from that. We were able to have all the information about the programme in one place, visible to everyone, we didn’t have to send out endless emails to large cohorts of students and we were able to cut down on paper correspondence. However, what we did need to do was learn how to use Blackboard, how to organise the programme on Blackboard so that students could easily find their way round and access the materials, and most of all (and most difficult) learn how to interact with students and teach on Blackboard, which involved a new pedagogical approach. Some tutors found this problem insurmountable, others, myself included, found the potential exciting.

Fifteen years later, I don’t see huge changes in Blackboard and there are still tutors for whom online learning is an anathema. But 15 years later I am no longer relieved to be working in Blackboard. I now find it an obstacle. Things that should be easy, such as blogging, editing and uploading videos, live synchronous sessions, using wikis etc. are unnecessarily difficult in Blackboard, or they are in the version of Blackboard that I am using.

A bit of context is needed here because others using Blackboard might not have the same issues in their courses and in their institutions. The context is the development of an online MA in Education. This is a recently revalidated programme which is ambitious in design. Hats off to the programme team and programme leader for this. The programme includes thirty-four modules varying between 10, 20, 30 and 60 credits which are distributed across 6 different learning pathways. The idea is that this will allow people in full-time demanding work, who are time poor, to build up the required 180 credits slowly or more quickly, as they wish, and thus have a chance of fitting the MA around their demanding work loads. I am currently working with 10 tutors on this programme, and thoroughly enjoying working with them face-to-face and learning from them.

From the perspective of the management of a complex programme, a centralised location such as Blackboard can help students to orientate themselves. A well managed programme can ensure a consistency of approach which will reduce confusion and help students to navigate the site and find the appropriate modules for their personalised programme. Tutors and students can maintain an overview of the entire programme, whilst at the same time easily locating their modules. The Blackboard programme site also provides a centralised and secure location for any work related to assessment. These are arguments that can be put forward in favour of a VLE/LMS like Blackboard.

But what are the downsides of working within a VLE like Blackboard? In 2009 Stephanie Coopman, in a critical examination of Blackboard’s e-learning environment, wrote:

…. the intensely hierarchical nature of Blackboard persists producing a textualized approach to teaching and learning. This hierarchy reflects the power structure embedded in e–learning management systems: Blackboard Inc. designers and marketers who determine the learning environment’s structure; university administrators who determine which features should and should not be included as well as instructor access to managing features; instructors who determine which features should be available to students and how the class website should be structured within the platform’s parameters; and, students, who determine how they will use the interface within the structure designed by Blackboard Inc., university administrators, and instructors.

Notice that students come right at the bottom of the list here. In Blackboard it is easy as a tutor to fall into the trap of thinking of teaching as something that is done to students, and as students to think of learning as something to be received. For both tutors and students autonomy can be constrained by the functionality of Blackboard. As Audrey Watters writes (2014) it ‘shapes, limits and steers our practices’.

In September last year Audrey Watters gave a talk to Newcastle University – Beyond the LMS , where she ended up by saying …

Let’s move beyond the LMS, back to and forward to an independent Web and let’s help our students take full advantage of it, because in her view ‘Blackboard sucks’.

Whilst I hold many of the same reservations about Blackboard, how is a tutor or student to respond to this? The fact that ‘Blackboard sucks’ doesn’t help those tutors and students who have to work within these constraints. They don’t have much of a choice.

For the people I am working with i.e. the tutors and the IT and library support people, the students are not at the bottom of the hierarchy but are their first concern. These are people who are immensely skilled at what they do, with years of experience behind them, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Blackboard is a constraint. For some this is a conscious constraint, for others it is unconscious. But isn’t that life? We all work within constraints of one sort or another.

How could Blackboard’s constraints be minimised? How can students and tutors reap the benefits of Blackboard, i.e. ease of finding resources, maintaining an overview of the programme, and the security of the assessment submission process, whilst at the same time reaping the benefits of autonomy, openness, diversity and connectivity offered by the open Web? On reflecting on this I think it has a lot to do with having an appropriate mindset. We have to recognise what the positives of working within an LMS might be, acknowledge the constraints, keep an open mind, be willing to experiment (and fail sometimes) and look for ways to overcome the constraints.

I have not been contracted to work with students, but if I were, I would look to see how I could support student autonomy and I would also want to increase my own autonomy. I think these are some of the things I might try. I would try to encourage students to set up WordPress blogs and would aggregate them within Blackboard, I would try using Skype and Google Hangout, providing links within Blackboard, I might try using a Facebook site or Google + for discussion, again providing the link within Blackboard (although personally I am not a fan of Facebook) and if I wanted to use a wiki I would try using pbWorks or Wikispaces, and provide the link in Blackboard.

The question would then remain, how open should these spaces be, and how accessible would they be for all the students? I know that the institution I am working for is concerned, quite rightly, about mobile access. And I also know that students can feel very vulnerable in open spaces. We ourselves, as tutors, can feel vulnerable in open spaces. These are not easy decisions to make and each tutor has to individually decide how best to work with their students, and what is best for them.

Ultimately it all comes down to personal philosophies of education; what do we want for our students, what kinds of spaces and environments do students need to learn in this digital age and how will we meet them in these spaces?

As I wrote in a recent post after hearing Ron Barnett speak at Liverpool John Moores University

The curriculum is not as important as pedagogy, i.e. the student/teacher relationship. We need to open up pedagogical space for our students and search for spaces of possibility. We should support our students in developing the dispositions needed for a world of challenge.

I think this can be done, even within Blackboard!

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This is what I have thought most about over the past month – so this is my post for June 2015, although I have also made other posts during June.

Openness, constraint and emergence

Openness does not mean that anything goes. Even openness of mind does not mean this. In our work on emergent learning, we (Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau, Regina Karousou and I) have in the papers we have published (see here  and here) suggested that constraints are needed for emergent learning to occur. I have been thinking about this further over the past week or so in relation to the work of two artists – Jackson Mac Low, the American poet, performance artist, composer and playwright and Edmund de Waal, the British ceramic artist and author.

Jackson Mac Lowsafe_image.phpSource of image: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Henry-Flynt/109544385731314?nr

Jackson Mac Low featured in Week 9 of the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo).

Edmund de Wall 348664217_640Source of image: http://vimeo.com/50611081

Edmund de Waal featured in a BBC One Imagine arts programme (see below). The two seem connected to me in the way in which they use constraint to fuel their creativity. They have both challenged conventional thinking in their own fields.

Mac Low created a memorial to Peter Inisfree Moore  by using the three words of his name to find 960 words, some recognisable and possibly meaningful and some nonsensical. His idea was that the words become less relevant because they are produced deterministically through a set procedure and not egoistically. Mac Low then got together a group of collaborators to perform this piece. (Click here for a recording).

He gave them rigorous instructions on how to collaboratively perform. He wanted his piece to be collectively intelligible. Each performer must be present with complete concentration, singers must use clear diction and move their eyes freely from any word to any other word and so on. There are a lot of ‘musts’ in his instructions. This was a random piece meticulously performed.  It forces us to shift our attention and listen. Its making and performance relied on constraints.

Jackson MacLow, wrote to Al Filreis about this piece as follows:

The community made up of the performers is a model of a society that has certain characteristics  that I would like to see abound in the wider society. The individual performers exercise initiative and choice at all points during the piece but are also constructing an oral situation that is not merely a mixture of results of egoic impulses but an oral construction that has a being of its own.

This for me resonates strongly with the original philosophy behind cMOOCs and the idea, which we have discussed in our papers, that emergent learning depends on frequent interaction and self-organisation of learners.

When I watched the BBC programme about Edmund de Waal, I was equally fascinated by how his emphasis on repetition ultimately led to a similar collaborative ‘performance’. deWaal for his exhibition A Thousand Hours – created a thousand porcelain pots through a quite deliberate and repetitive process. He was then meticulous about how they were exhibited in vitrines, using drawn plans which a team of collaborators were required to follow to place the pots in exact positions.

To watch Edmund de Waal at work, view this video.

Edmund de Waal: a thousand hours from Alan Cristea Gallery on Vimeo.

For both artists, the hard work, the open thinking, the collaborative physical experience, shift of attention, the community of performance and the open listening resulted in outcomes beyond anything that could have been predicted; the outcomes were emergent.

As one of the ModPo teaching assistants (Amaris Cuchanski) said in the week 9 video discussion about Jackson Mac Low

‘The individual constraints liberates the community as a whole. Meaning is created in the space between the subjectivity of the people involved’.

I am still grappling with the relationship between openness, constraint and emergence, but both these artists sparked off these thoughts. Edmund de Waal opened his mind to the possibilities of porcelain pots and Jackson Mac Low opened his mind to the possibilities of words and sounds, but both applied constraints to their work.