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Preaching to the converted – how do you get the word out to those who really need to hear?

February 3, 2010 Leave a comment

I was reading a recent blog post by Kyle Pace which was discussing the issue of choosing to adapt your teaching practice now to be more inclusive of technology, or to wait for the world to change around you.

Personally I feel that teaching practice will change to be more technology inclusive, no question. As those growing up in our society today immersed in online networks, social media etc grow up and some of them become teachers, it will be as natural as using a whiteboard is most of us today – it is a question of natural evolution. I guess the question is whether teachers today choose to move forward to be a part of that future or refuse to acknowledge the changing society that surrounds up and adapt their teaching practices to suit.

Convincing people about the value and relevance of online learning and teaching seems to be the eternal question though, at least until the next generation arrives. We are in an interesting transition stage as technology moves so fast, it is no wonder that teachers can have a hard time keeping up with out help. And no wonder that many feel it is too much of an effort to start.

This brings me to the point of this post really…

There is a lot of interesting material out there about adopting online technologies into teaching, Kyle’s blog post is a good example, and I myself am in the middle of developing a project to help teachers new to online learning get started. However I have a feeling much of the time, it is people who are already convinced about embracing technology who watch, and not those who really need to.

As part of my role as coordinator of a fully online program, and as someone who trains academics to write and teach online courses, who has to sit on the academic committees that vote on allowing such courses to go ahead, I can say that for the most part, those who are not interested in online learning are deeply suspicious about its credibility. Often this is justified because what they have seen has been done so poorly in the past. Also there are many teachers who simply will not look at any material or seek to learn more about this topic because they are just too busy.

I think in many ways teachers can feel as if technology is being forced down their throats, and more often these days I think this is a justified feeling. More universities finally seem to be realising that they have missed the boat on including online learning in their curricula, and that there is a REAL demand for it. So all of a sudden there is a big rush to get content up fast, a ‘goldrush’ if you will, which can sometimes be ill considered and not approach the problem from the perspective of understanding how technology can enhance an individual teacher’s practice, and how it is relevant to their industries and students.

This is usually a ‘one-size fits all’ kind of approach, where one platform or technology is offered, and the teachers are told they must use it. In my own institution last year there were statements such as ‘every academic must have part of their course online’ coming from those higher up – but no thought went into why this had to be so, how it would effect the students’ learning or the teacher. It was just about ticking a box. No wonder academics get their backs up when technology supported teaching is mentioned!

I tend to agree with the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink”. When I first started helping to set up the online courses at my faculty, it was an incredibly hostile environment to such a venture. We found teachers who were interested, then worked hard to produce online courses and teaching practices that were effective. Feedback from students was good, and where it wasn’t we always tried to work as a community to help each other improve. Over the years word spread and more people wanted to try online teaching, bolstered by the success of their colleagues, and now it feels as though we are finally getting somewhere in terms of acceptance.

So in relation to Kyle’s post about do we move forward or wait, I guess I’d have to say don’t force anyone to start using technology in their teaching who doesn’t want to, or the results will most certainly be counter-productive. Let those who are not ready to move forward wait, while those who are forge ahead and build great examples for others to follow.

The material our team will be producing as part of the project I mentioned earlier will follow this philosophy, offering assistance to those who want it, and hopefully it will help teachers create sustainable, successful online teaching and learning initiatives that will inspire their colleagues to give it a go before the world catches up with them…

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Online student interaction – a waste of time?

January 22, 2010 10 comments

Someone tweeted a link today that caught my eye to a recently published paper by Sharon Watson of the Chifley Business School in Melbourne. This paper was presented at the HERDSA 2009 conference at Charles Darwin University, Darwin.

The paper is entitled Distance education students’ attitudes towards increased online interaction: desired change or unwanted imposition?

As an online educator who builds his entire teaching philosophy around the concept of collaborative learning (or social constructivism), I was very interested to see what the paper had to say. I found it very interesting – have a read and see what you think. I had not thought much about whether interaction amongst students online was a bad or unwanted thing before, and perhaps this has something to do with my design background, where open conversation, peer review and critical exchange of ideas is not only encouraged, but a necessity – especially in the education process. It made me wonder if I have been inflicting my views of collaborative learning onto my students, or if I have been taking for granted that open sharing of ideas and knowledge is an essential part of the learning process…

The main conclusion of Watson’s paper was, that a student’s attitude towards online interaction with their peers seemed to be linked with their nationality in the context of the research that was conducted. Both Indian and Australian students made up the bulk of the study, and it seems that there was a marked preference for more interaction from the Indian students, and the Australian on the whole would’ve liked to keep things as they were with little peer interaction. She does also say that the courses were not well designed when it came to including discussion into the course structure, and that the study was done before any redevelopment to ensure changes would be received well by those studying the course.

This surprised me somewhat, because I know a colleague of mine, Ian McArthur, has done significant work with running online courses between Australian and Chinese cultures (through his Collabor8 projects) – and he has found that the Chinese students seem to find it more difficult to contribute effectively to online discussions in comparison to the much more active Australians, due to cultural differences in how they communicate and and how learning is usually conducted (In fact you can see an interesting presentation he has done on this topic here).

This to me suggests that perhaps it is not culture alone that influences preference for collaborative learning and student interaction online. Of course issues such as language, and cultural differences play an important part, but primarily I think we to begin with, the way the courses are designed and taught have to be examined first…

A Learning Community vs Distance Learning – decide what you’re aiming for from the get go!
I have always disliked it when anyone refers to ‘distance learning’ in relation to what I do. To me, the distance learning model is usually designed around the (dare I say antiquated?) concept of a student’s solitary involvement with the course content and perhaps their teacher, and is a completely different premise to what online learning these days really can be.

You just have to look at the abundance of social networking communities, online forums, social bookmarking out there to know that people love to interact and collaborate when it is relevant to them and when they can learn more from the experience to make the time invested worthwhile. Interacting with others online can lead to extremely rich learning experiences – but a student has to feel that interacting with their peers will give them a much higher level of personal satisfaction and a better learning experience for this to work.

I think a teacher has to decide right up front whether they want their online class to be community or a conduit for individual learning. If interaction is desired, then the course has to be designed to encourage this from the ground up.

My point is, that if you have designed an online course using a ‘distance learning’ mentality (students work individually to complete course assignments and get feedback from only their teacher), then of course interaction between students can become superfluous and pointless. Online students often choose to study online because of time constraints with their busy lives, so conversations that lead nowhere or serve no purpose are a road to disaster.

It is crucial that an online teacher establish a community, and engender a culture of collaborative enquiry amongst students from the start. This requires assessment to be designed such that discussion and review are necessary in order to reach the goal. Students should also have a space for unrelated social chat, and be shown what constitutes valuable contributions in a discussion. One of the most valuable uses of interaction in a class I have used is using general discussion (after a lecture usually) to help students build a set of collectively defined criteria about a concept that helps them make sense of the new information. They then take this into their project work, where they can apply it to their approaches in completing the task. Following this students present their work back to their peers, who review it based upon the criteria they established a a larger group earlier on. I have found this type of discussion is purposeful, and also allows students to apply what they have learned in constructive analysis of their fellow students’ work.

I definitely don’t think increased online interaction is a waste of students’ time – but these are of course my personal and therefore biased thoughts on the topic, but I would like to hear what others think. Perhaps I am too focused on collaboration and am running my students ragged – any of my students out there!?

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Is our higher education system on the brink of extinction?

January 15, 2010 5 comments

Well, maybe that may be a bit extreme for the here and now, but I don’t think it’s that far fetched – read on…

A response to Mike Bogle’s blog post “Expanding the role of the university”

I read an interesting post from Mike Bogle today about demand for university study outstripping available places. I really recommend that you take a look and read the full post to get the context of what I am saying here. Mike opens with…

According to an article in the Australian this morning, student demand is exceeding available spots in universities, with many universities in Queensland “struggling to keep pace with strong student demand, with the offer rate falling to 79 per cent, down from 83 per cent last year.

It got me thinking about an initiative we ran for a few years to try to engage members of the public in university level study online for a fraction of the cost. It ended up being a failure, and Mike’s post got me to thinking why. He went on to say…

This situation need not be a binary question of acceptance versus rejection.  Universities really need to be making opportunities available for informal study by individuals who either fail to gain formal acceptance to institution, or choose not to apply in the first place.

I agree with what Mike said in his post on the surface, but the interesting thing is that for a few years, COFA Online offered our university online courses to members of the public in a non-accredited format and for a relatively cheap rate via the ‘COFA Online Enrich’ program. The idea was to offer the public the chance to engage with others in intellectual exploration of art and design courses at university level – much like what Mike advocated in his post. Those that enrolled interacted online with full fee paying, accredited students and joined in the projects, discussion and collaborations, received detailed feedback to their work, but not a grade.

We found that there was a very low demand for this option of study, so after trying many different advertising avenues, and giving it the benefit of the doubt for 3 years or so, we canceled the program. Now this sounds like a poor reflection on the courses themselves, but they constantly receive a high standard of feedback and approval from our university’s students in formal evaluations, and those Enrich students who participated always rated them very highly – leaving glowing reports about their experience throughout the message boards in the courses themselves.

Yet despite this a relatively poor number of people engaged with the program.

This brings me back to Mike’s post – and while I really agree with the principles he is putting forward, I feel that there may be some other factors that should be considered here…

Saying it is is the fault of the institutions for not offering such options to the broader population out there is one thing, but have we fully considered the other side of the coin? Does the general population really want this type of learning from a university, or do they come to a university over the countless other education providers out there because they want that degree?

My experience with the Enrich program hints to me that there may be something to consider here…

I feel in the case of our Enrich program, the reason for it not taking off despite a lot of effort could have been that the types of courses we were offering may not have been to the taste of the public in general, maybe they were looking for more ‘community college’ kind of courses, but to me I think this raises an important point about the motivation of people to undertake the kind of educational opportunities as Mike has outlined in his post.

In other words, are people willing to engage in study at university if they don’t get credit towards a degree? Of course there are university systems in place to allow students to study a course, and gain credit towards a future degree at that institution, even if they are not enrolled in a degree program. But this is expensive, and in the end, you still have to qualify for admission to that university if you ever want to ‘claim’ the credits you have earned. Perhaps a vicious cycle for those who failed to meet the admission requirements in the first place?

Perhaps those that want to study for the joy of it find cheaper alternatives out there that makes the university option too expensive and complicated? After all if you are studying for the love of learning, is the university style of study and engagement with tertiary students worth the cost compared to other online or night classes at the local community college, if there are no higher qualifications to be had? For some yes, for the majority, perhaps no…

I agree with Mike that institutions are losing the opportunity to create a greater level of community engagement, and really need to rethink the archaic administrative procedures they have in place. Otherwise why wouldn’t people just visit iTunes U and join discussion forums to learn for free?

University education does have a lot to offer that the above options do not, but I feel it is a question of perceived value. And because of this universities are losing the opportunity to contribute to the larger society in a meaningful way, and in a way that will help break down those ivy covered walls many institutions still reside behind.

Furthermore, unless universities rethink their current stance, people will continue to be drawn to other learning alternatives. Our institutions are in danger of becoming more and more irrelevant to the way that contemporary society works, learns and plays. I am researching this very phenomenon (via the concepts of social reproduction – see Warschauer 2003 and mediation – read some Vygotsky) as part of my PhD thesis, and I find it incredibly relevant to, and unnervingly apparent in, the way many tertiary institutions are operating today.

I feel we (tertiary educators) are on the razor’s edge between making real change to our attitudes and teaching practices to ‘bring them up to speed’ with what is happening around us, and once again playing a central role in the shaping our future cultures – or keeping our blinkers on, and as a result falling further behind (and becoming an endangered species – the last turkey in the shop) as society evolves in the way it communicates, learns and works.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one – its a biggy, and perhaps I went off on a bit of a doom and gloom tangent here, but I hope you find it interesting none-the-less. Do you feel I am talking a load of crud, or if not, how would you think we should begin to address the issue?

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Can learning online be a more ‘human’ experience than learning face-to-face?

July 10, 2009 13 comments

Let me start by saying “I definitely think so”!

Well, I have started this blog to hopefully generate some interesting discussion about the issues surrounding the design, implementation and management of innovative, successful and appropriate online learning and teaching strategies for teachers today. This is my first post!

I have been teaching collaborative design related courses online for about 8 years now, and it has been a constant learning curve. However I have to say that my most rewarding teaching and learning experiences have been online, and if my students are telling the truth, the same can be said for many of them.

For me this has been a great source of interest – given that many academics (and students) still feel that elearning is an isolating, inferior, cost cutting, lazy way of teaching. Teaching online is just like any other form of teaching – it can be done well, and it can be done, erm, let’s just say ‘not-so-well’. For many years online learning suffered a poor reputation from many institutions throwing up poorly conceived content, usually in the form of course notes or lecture powerpoints, with no thought of how to engage and motivate students in this new environment. Anyway this is an old story so I won’t go into detail now, the point is that many teachers still don’t know how to effectively teach online, and this in turn results in dissatisfied students, crying that their online course is some kind of cop out by the institution – in fact a year or so ago, the students at my own institution rated their online learning experience so poorly that an entire department was axed and the whole approach to online learning reconsidered.

Back to the point of this post though. I have developed, supervised and taught in an online masters program since 2007, after teaching various online electives before that at undergraduate level. Students are participating from all around the world, and from a range of different disciplinary backgrounds. Interestingly, the age ranges of these students is an equal spread from around mid twenties to mid sixties, and most students have never learned online before, nor used many social networking tools (yes I was surprised too!).

I have been continually blown away at the level of interaction between the students, and the depth of the relationships that they form with each other in the course of their learning. I have NEVER seen my students invest so much of their personality, knowledge and experience into a class as I have seen in this online environment. They tell me (through informal online discussions, and in formal evaluation reports) that they have gotten to know and trust their online classmates better than any they have known in a traditional face-to-face learning environment, and I have to say so have I (I can remember everyone’s name for one thing, whereas in a face-to-face class I would master this task 2 weeks from the end of semester!).

The reasons for this I think are varied, but primarily I think this has to do with the following:

  • The feeling of anonymity that comes with interacting from behind a screen
  • Everyone gets the chance to contribute equally – no time limits or confidence problems speaking in front of a crowd
  • The design of the assessment tasks – focusing upon collaborative process and idea generation
  • Most interestingly – students’ preconceived reactions to a person’s age, sex or appearance and even disability are eliminated, meaning the social dynamics are more equitable

I have found that the willingness for students to help each other and share knowledge is much higher than in a normal classroom where social cliques are more prevalent. Of course a lot of thought has to go into the course design and the teaching/moderation of the course in order to foster a good level of interaction and trust, but I have found that the natural inclination of students in this course has been to be open, honest and high contributors on the whole.

In short I have found my online teaching to be a much more ‘human’ experience than any face-to-face teaching I have done before. I have gotten to know my students better, and have seen the trust they share with each other deepen improve their learning outcomes.

I would love to hear from other online teachers out there about their thoughts on this, have you found something similar with your online students? Why do you think this is, and how can we enhance our teaching practice to maximise the potential of the social dynamic it creates?

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