27 February 2009

On-line learning (6 and final)

This is a response to the final reflective task of the "On-line tutoring" course, but I hope it may be of interest to anyone else who happens to stumble by here.

First, and most important, I need to say how much I was impressed by the quality of the course, its design, materials and tutorial support. To declare an interest, it is offered by the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development which happens to be my current temporary employer---but I wanted to work with them because of what I knew of their work, rather than I want to puff them because I am working there this semester.

And to look at this within a framework; following (roughly) Kirkpatrick's (1994) four levels of evaluation;
  1. Did I enjoy it? No. The only time which came close to "enjoyment" was the final week's scenarios exercise. But clearly I was in a minority. I reject the notion of learning styles, but I do have preferences (which are at this level rather than 2,3,4) and this approach--and it doesn't matter what "this approach" is--just doesn't suit me. See below for expansion.

  2. Did I learn anything? Yes. A lot. I'm not sure it was the same as the course set out to teach, though, and that is an interesting issue about this medium for learning. More on this below.

  3. Will it make any difference to my practice? Yes, although since I am semi-retired this is not significantly important. It reinforced what I already knew about the commitment required of the on-line tutor (more, it has to be said, from the model set by the Centre--which was not stinting in its allocation of resources--and the tutors themselves, who were always there, than from what the course explicitly taught.) The difference it will make (at which point some people may legitimately heave a sigh of relief) is that I shall be even more reluctant to tutor on-line than I was before.

  4. Will that affect the practice of my organisation? Probably not in the case of my current employer, but it might make a difference to the advice I offer to others in the future, and particularly to my approach to a staff development session I am scheduled to offer for another university in a couple of weeks' time on just this topic.
More idiosyncratically;
  • The course emphasised on-line group interaction using the Virtual Learning Environment in particular but Web 2.0 tools in general;

  • I found this difficult for various reasons. In their inventories of significant features of the design of on-line tutoring systems (the penultimate activity of the course), many members identified "comfort with the technology" as a basic issue to address. I am comfortable with some of the technology as this blog testifies, but I dislike VLEs. They seem invariably to complicate things which can be done more easily with other web tools.

  • But that was not the major point. Diana Laurillard's (2001, maybe later--I'm being cavalier about referencing--this is a blog, remember, count yourself lucky to get any references at all...!) Laurillard's point was that e-learning tools need to be judged principally by their capacity to approximate the richness of a face-to-face learning conversation.

  • Real conversation wanders. It moves up and down through levels of abstraction (Dale and Bruner); it drifts off by free association and returns to the main topic (sometimes); it is not constrained by rigid topic boundaries. This is very difficult indeed to replicate in an on-line environment; threaded posts, tags etc. all help, but they do require conscious and constraining decisions on the part of the poster, and complex discussions are defined as much by what people do not access (still less read, still less respond to...) as by what they do.

  • I was inhibited by this. One week I hardly posted at all. Each of the list headings I looked at seemed to prescribe a certain kind of response--one which I did not want to make. I looked in vain for one labelled "None of the above" or "Contrarian"! But. I know... I am not criticising, just discussing a real problem to which I do not have a solution. And if you think lists labelled as above are a solution, think through their likely impact on the whole. And look at the research...

    • Ah! The research! Considerable effort was devoted to the scholarship of learning and teaching on-line. There was a required textbook and links throughout to useful papers. Some of them were thought-provoking (as is this post, I hope) with plenty of references to previous papers, some endorsed, some qualified, some opposed. All the stuff of SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning).

    • I may well be wrong here, because I cannot claim to have traced to their roots all the references cited in the readings for the course, but although they may be scholarly and (more important) informed by the experience of practice, they are a crust of accretions of legitimated opinion.

      • I confess it is now six years since I really pursued this. I was supervising a master's student (in learning and teaching in nursing, specifically) whose dissertation related to e-learning in in-service nursing education. She had produced a very scholarly literature review, comparing and discussing different models... I had pushed her for hard evidence behind these peer-reviewed and published papers. She was upset--who was I to query the evidence? So I undertook the trail back through half a dozen of her sources, to make the point. It took a long time (before Google Scholar) and was I confess incomplete. (Come to think of it, why did I not publish? The evidence is discarded now!) But three generations back on six of her sources, roughly 216 sources, I found only ten which were unequivocally empirically researched, and at least two of those relied on research instruments which have themelves been questioned...

        • Wandering now, but... I have been reading Nick Davies' book on the state of journalism*, which talks about "churnalism", where the demands of the system lead to stories being repeated without checking, and to rumour mills, moral panics and vulnerability to PR... It happens in educational "research" too. Next weekend, in one of my other jobs, I shall be working on a study day for 350 students. The visiting speaker will be Frank Coffield, the principal protagonist in the de-bunking of the egregious scam of "learning styles"--as a spurious, self-serving, commercially brilliant and politically convenient load of ordure. It, and other associated fads such as "accelerated learning" have prospered because pressured academics and practitioners have grasped at straws--and these ideas hovered tantalisingly on the edges of common sense (whatever that is...).

  • Back to the mainstream. Consensual, interactive, social constructed knowledge was privileged (sorry about the jargon). We did not explore the nature of authority on-line. And that is a big, but concealed issue. (I am reminded of a phrase from "Cold Comfort Farm" which cannot be repeated nowadays.) The "subject matter" of the course was considered as an inert given, in the sense that it would not affect other processes, or indeed be affected by them. It's a noble gas, man :-) It isn't.

But I want also to thank my fellow participants. No, I didn't really get to know you. Sometimes I am sure that my tone was irksome and boorish. But your responses were unfailingly courteous and constructive, or you benignly ignored me--probably the best strategy (sometimes I wish I could ignore me, but it doesn't seem to work...)

The above goes a fortiori for the long-suffering tutors.

Many thanks!

* Davies N (2009) Flat Earth News London; Vintage Books.

20 February 2009

On-line learning (5)

[This post is added pretty well "as is", several days after its original composition. The delay is accounted for by my self-imposed rule not to post if I wouldn't drive (a.k.a. I had a couple of drinks before I drafted it). The parallel is quite close. Mostly what follows is coherent and indeed representative of my views, but observe the twee infantilism of the initial paragraph... I draw attention to this simply because it is so difficult to gauge the state of mind of a contributor on-line, unless they flag it in some way...]

I've been a good boy this week. Or at least a better boy than the hissy-fitting curmudgeon of last week. Why? Fundamentally because a member of our small working group and a tutor were nice to me. That's very basic, isn't it? I got stroppy over something, doubtless in an "immature" way (maturity is independent of age, despite what people seem to think: I'm 64, and I do "immature" much better now than I did at 14...) --and I thought I had burned my boats with the group. Remember that the channels of communication are very limited on-line.

I joined in the conversation again with the merest hint of apology (actually a crass face-saving, "I woz bein' ironic, innit?" angle), and they scuppered my plans to flounce off by being very understanding and building on the few constructive remarks I had made... So! Another attempt to do a good flounce is thwarted. Will I never manage it? Flouncing is a young man's game. Well, no, it's traditionally a woman's ploy... Sorry! the deconstruction of flouncing was not a designated learning outcome for this course!

But was I really back in the group? How much is anyone "in" the group? Regardless of how much I might have offended or alienated the other members, the system posts messages to the group to all of us. Engage paranoia; are there back channels? Does it matter? What is the difference between formative and summative assessment in this context? However...

The above reflections (posh term; incoherent self-mumblings might be a better term) stem from the basic observation that unlike the real world, what happens in the virtual class is either up-front visible or not. "Not" is speculation or fantasy... I don't need to spell out the sequelae...

However! Different tack. I have responded to a number of different threads and forums this week. Actually I have responded to particular points made by individuals who have already posted, and I have done so with reference to those posts, not to the theme set by the tutors. On a couple of occasions I have realised that I could have posted about this issue here, but I have already done so to a doubtless more limited readership, there.

This is a function of the site design, and it has been a continuing bugbear of the whole course. And indeed of all systems which seek to regulate communication.

19 February 2009

On restricted and elaborated code

I started reading this simply out of interest in the topic, but as I read on I realised that among other things it was an exploration of Bernstein's restricted and elaborated codes. I don't need to elaborate; but understanding is restricted to those who know the background (in two or even three senses).

This is of course not simply a pure illustration of the distinction; as in the real world (this may even be part of the real world!) it is embedded in and muddied by another discussion.

15 February 2009

On-line learning (5)

We have been set up in small groups to work on a task, preferably via a wiki.

The group is self-managing. That is probably the right strategy, because imposing the burden of chairing a group on an individual is unfair when it will last for a week or more, and when the tutors have had no chance to assess capabilities... But. A chair will emerge, and it is interesting to reflect on who will assume that role under the circumstances. Is that person likely to preside over the best possible "product" from the group?

It so happens that for various reasons I took my eye off the ball this week (that might not be the best metaphor, since I have never been able to catch balls even when looking directly at them, but...) With two consequences;
  • I don't know where to find the group report, still less contribute to it, so
  • I feel more left out, and less inclined to log in to find what I am left out of...
I report this not to complain, by any means. ("For Brutus is an honorable man“ OK!) but to reflect on the limitations of on-line communication.

There are no back-channels. For good reasons, I can't "whisper" to a friend, "What's going on?". Nor is there a "new readers start here" facility. A course leader might well argue that to incorporate such a facility would be to give carte blanche to every free-loading lurker to check in when it suited them and to feign participation. But it all depends on what you think people are there for, and I confess that I am now highly ambivalent about the course.

On the one hand, I am ever more intrigued by the challenge faced by course designers and tutors, of reducing the subtleties of pedagogy to the concreteness of rubrics and procedures, like trying to capture the flow and tumble of water in stone. And I am impressed not only by the skill of the tutorial team, but also by their commitment.

On the other, I am frustrated by what seems increasingly to be the demonstrable failure of the model. Rightly, I think, the tutors are trying to promote interaction between the course participants. But I have only the vaguest idea of who they are. We did an introductions exercise, but the other people are still merely labels to me. I have no sense of them as people. Earlier, I went back to the introductions to check on who was "speaking", but it was too much hassle. So I found myself responding to everyone in the same way...

The introduction of small group working is an interesting shift. OK, it's not surprising that I can't hold in my mind the distinctive characteristics and characteristic opinions fo a couple of dozen people. But perhaps I ought to be able to do so for half a dozen? Perhaps. I have failed because I took my eye off the ball, but I don't know what would have happened had I not. (As it were!)

So perhaps this conversation within the group and a broadly socially-oriented pedagogy and indeed epistemology is a challenge too far for e-learning? Or just for a 64-year-old? Or is this topic the ultimate challenge for e-learning? (For new readers, the topic is "on-line tutoring and blended learning")

Incidentally, I have finally got the book. It came from India--there's globalisation for you.

I'll stick with it, but if I started with a motivation score of 7/10, it is now about 3/10. Of course, if I had not been distracted and kept up a constant contact every day, the outcome might well be very different...

On simplifying

Someone called this columnist's bluff and asked for a straightforward account of an obscure argument in a previous column.

What do you make of the result?
  • Was it well done?
  • Do you now understand it?
  • If you understood it before, was anything lost in translation?
  • How much does the {lost in translation} stuff matter?
  • Accepting that some academic and technical jargon and discourse is necessary, how do we define the boundaries?

10 February 2009

On outcomes across the pond

An excellent rant about the pernicious outcomes of outcomes models, with some interesting follow-up comments.

07 February 2009

On-line learning (4)

I've just been checking in with the course--hey, how better could one spend a Saturday (now Sunday) night?

I'm struck by the increasing demands on the tutors (although they did literally ask for it when they encouraged the use of web 2.0 resources). When I first tutored on-line 12 years ago, we used a package called FirstClass, which kept track of one's time on-line among other facilities. My first significant learning from that module was that I rapidly exceeded the allocated staff hours for the module, logged on to work with the student participants. And I was just one of three tutors working with nine students.

Returning to the fray years later, as a student rather than a tutor, I find that the channels have proliferated. I'm not a fan of the bounded VLE; it's a tool which tries to do too many things not very well and is obsessed not with privacy but secrecy. But, it certainly simplifies things for the tutors. And given that this course has already encouraged us to go to blogs and Flickr (sorry--not got round to that--I use Picasa and E-snips, are they roughly the same?) it must be a hassle keeping up. So, respect to them for their encouraging feedback; at the moment it is probably simple reinforcement for contributing, but in the future...?

But leaving aside the welfare of the tutors... Now, I want to know where we are going. I need a clearer sense of direction(s).

This course actually comes with a book! Sadly, my enrolment deal does not include a free copy; I have ordered it from the great river, but the stream which leads to my house is clearly clogged with ice-floes--we have received no physical mail for the past four days. (The library copies are out.) So I haven't read the prescribed chapters, yet... But I do need input. Input in respect of researched and established theory. Not "Let's have a chat and find out what works for us" stuff. The feedback has concentrated on encouragement; good idea so far as people have admitted their trepidation in joining in. I've received a couple of tutor comments which refer to "thought-provoking" ideas. They probably mean "bullshit", but of course they can't say so. Yet. I can't start learning, because that is what it is all about, until I get Feedback, with a capital "F". So we have to move on...

I know! Were I a tutor, I should be more circumspect. But I'm not a tutor! So I can be...

Frustrated? Yes. Is this a good thing? It does mean I am hungry for something. But it also suggests I am on the cusp of getting what I want or giving up... I shan't do that, but is this "normal" for e-learners? Is there an equivalent process to the supposed group development process of forming-storming-norming-performing?

04 February 2009

On-line learning (3)

I logged on "casually" tonight, to find 71 unread messages. Too much. I logged off.

Face to face, the rules influencing contributions and attention to them are hugely complex and we all filter and attend selectively and wilfully ignore and prioritise, and we do it in "real time", as contributions are made and conversations unfold.

I don't know how to handle this as a "student". As a tutor, I just had to get on with it, and I was rarely off-line for long enough to let messages build up. After all, tutoring an on-line course was part of my core business, as it were. Paradoxically, I was less selective in my attention than I would have been in a real classroom.

I've read some of the posts, and thought, "Hmm, interesting point, I might respond to that---but no, don't be silly, responding only encourages them!"

---and that is of course really interesting in terms of being one one side of the fence or the other. As a tutor I desperately wanted this intercourse and debate; as a student I want to cut to the chase and get the substantive content. All these ideas from my fellow participants who (with of course all respect) don't know much more than I do are all very well, but... In class, the lecturer/teacher/tutor would (because the conversation is synchronous) close it down and move on. That option is only available via draconian measures on-line, which are experienced as censorship while being "normal" class management in the face to face world.

Of course, the other factor is to ask just how real this on-line course is? There are two issues here;
  • first, this is a course about on-line learning so it has attracted people who are interested in it, and presumably have more to say about it. My comments about "don't encourage them" might be quite irrelevant/otiose in the context of a required course for undergrads.
  • On the other hand, the distribution of contributions seems at first glance (the tutors have access to the stats, so they may confirm later) to follow the same broadly power-law distribution identified by Bales et al in the 1950s on participation in groups in general (see here)
Enough. In the time I have spent writing this, I could probably have learned more by reading those 71 posts, and perhaps responding to them and joining the debate rather than standing (arrogantly?) and sniping on the side-lines. And this critique is about the issues inherent in e-learning; it implies nothing about any individual or indeed implementation.

01 February 2009

On-line learning (2)

The on-line course is now getting going; there are 22 participants including me and several tutors, of whom two have so far made an appearance. Several initial impressions;
  • Every post is (at this stage) religiously responded to by the tutors. That really matters on-line. Frankly some of the responses are banal, but that is not the point. In class, I can nod, make eye-contact, smile, or note a key-word on a flip-chart. All such responses send "message received and (at least) valued", and they require no deliberate effort. Not so on-line; perhaps as the learning community grows (there are only about 4 contributors to date) the tutors will back off a little. If they don't, there is the danger of creating a "hub-and-spoke" pattern of communication which might inhibit direct "network" interaction between participants. I don't think that is very likely with mature, confident participants, but it could well happen with undergrads. (Of course, all this is my opinion and speculation--one of the things I am hoping to learn is whether or not it is well-founded.)

  • I'm not exactly finding it difficult to navigate the site, but it is a little unnatural. The tutors have provided an excellent and comprehensive user guide/course orientation/study guide. I remember working with Steve Ryan and Bernard Scott in 1996 on my first "resource-based learning" course, and their emphasis on the Study Guide. I initiallly thought it rather patronising, but later learned how necessary it was. But it remains a really tricky job to "pitch" it just right. And my own ambivalence testifies to that. Part of the time I am irritated by the assertion of the plonkingly obvious, only to have to refer back to it because I have missed something...

  • ...but of necessity the course site is segmented into separate areas. Each week or assignment has its discussion board, there is a virtual coffee-bar (where participants are already unsure about what belongs and what should be elsewhere) and so on. In the real world---for better or for worse---we would move, slide, elide between these different conversations, without too much concern about what belonged where. Uh oh!...

  • ...The net does not do ambiguity! (sorry, folks, if this is self-indulgent, but the problem/necessity [?] of ambiguity in curriculum design has been a preoccupation of mine [and colleagues] for many years).
Enough for now.