tisdag 3 maj 2011

Student-active learning in online settings

Active learning could have various meanings, but here it will be about students who are participating and producing something in net-based learning environments whilst gradually being more self-managed.

Evolution
To approach the topic of ”student-active learning” I would like to briefly remind you of how distance education have coevolved with the technological development. Whereas we once used so called snail mail to send out course material and assignments for our students to deal with in isolation and then send back to the tutor for marking, we could later benefit from audio, film and video. However, all these technologies were mainly one-way communication.


With the emergence of the Internet we had the opportunity to subsume all the previous technologies into online education and communicate in multiple ways, synchronously as well as asynchronously.

Together with a growing interest in socio-constructivist learning focusing on the student as an active learner, net-based learning approaches today is often characterised by frequent communication and collaboration on the net.


Participation
Participation is a keyword in socio-constructivist settings. It means that through participation you gradually appropriate what it means to be a competent participant in the context. Thus, being a participant in a course like this is not just a matter of remembering or cramming stuff into one's head.

Acting competently means that you take on a responsibility to share reflections from your reading of course material but also that you read and comment on what your fellow course particpants produce. In the words of Stephen Downes (2006):

… an approach to learning that is based on conversation and interaction, on sharing, creation and participation, on learning not as a separate activity, but rather as embedded in meaningful activity such as [dialogue] games and workflows.
( http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/paper92/paper92.html )

Myths
The demand for continual participation can sometimes be a bit of a surprise for course attendants. Equipped with a a notion of distance education more like what it used to be when assignments should be solved and handed in for marking, the demand for both public and ongoing production together with a reasonable coordination with other participants' efforts, can make the student a bit confused about what s/he is taking part in.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual that the participant who applies for the net-based course is the victim of a very common myth about net-based courses, namley that it will be like a walk in the park i.e. that it takes less time to take a net-based course compared to a campus course on a similar topic. This is of course a problem for us arranging net-based courses and we have gradually realized the need for a note of "warning" telling prospective applicants more explictly what it takes to participate. However, if they are willing to particpate the way it was meant they will probably leave the course with a rich store of new experiences.

Tutoring
Another myth about online courses is that they will cost less to produce and that they are quite easy tutor. Traditional distance courses with prefabricated course material and fixed assignments can easily be scaled up to handle great numbers of students with little extra costs since the most expensive part of the course is the preparation of material. Once produced the course readings and assignments could be duplicated according to the needs. Fixed solutions to assignments could also be marked by assistants or any staff satisfactorily qualified. In constrast, the socio-constructivist course with emergent, ongoing production and frequent teacher feedback doesn't easily scale to large groups.

The tutor of a socio-constructivist online course must be committed to the idea of teaching and learning this way. It means that the he or she doesn't really teach in a traditional sense; instead the tutor is more like a responsible partner in the discussions, a person who supervises the discussions both by letting the particpants handle situations themselves and giving directions and input when needed. The underlying idea is to nurture a growth towards self-managed and personal learning, something that will be of value for the student once the course is over. Actually, modelling how to act, learn and make use of the myriads of resources on the Internet could be said to be one of the most important goals whatever the topic an online course.

Examples
Now I am going to show you briefly some examples of what all this might look like in practice. Accordingly, we need a group of interested particpants who are willing to invest their time in frequent participation and contribution. Luckily, I have had lots of those groups from time to time.

In my courses we have mainly used text-based communcation since it makes the student independent of both time and place, something which is appropriate for course participants with a vocational occupation.

Sometimes there is some confusion when we start, not always as severe as in this example, but still a little confusion. What I would like you to notice, however, is that the participants often start helping each other if you just do not interfere at once.

It is also important that we create a friendly atmosphere where they trust each other enough to talk about their feelings and anxieties.

It is also that they buy into the demand for coordination and collaboration. Actually, in the best of cases they might feel a bit ashamed for not keeping up with the others.

Perhaps you wonder if they really learn something? First, as I mentioned above, learning to be a particpant online is part of the learning but of course they also explicitly discuss the subject matter of the course.

The example shown here (se presentation) is from their discussion on learing through collaboration online. It seems they got the message.

These are some of the conclusions that might be drawn: First of all, online particpants must always be prepared and ready to contribute, furthermore writing is a powerful tool for the development of thinking, discussing asynchronously gives each participant time to reflect and finally, I think that the communication online is sometimes better than on campus. Paradoxically, you often get to know your particpants better online.



Provoking thoughts
Even if the example of online teaching I just showed is not quite like traditional lectures and seminars on campus, it is still very much traditional education. We have a fixed curriculum, set texts, individual assessment and a final grading. This might be necessary and legally sound in a university setting but it is not particularly suited for, what John Seely Brown designates as, passion based learning.Instead students are forced to succeed and their activities are mostly a matter of passing various obstacles to get the credits and evenutally a grade, to put it bluntly.

But what would real self-managed personal learning be like? Key to personal learning is the drive and interest to explore, connect and expand one's personal network on the Internet where you learn and share what you have learnt with other people.

In a recent and ongoing course I have tried to model this behaviour for my course participants first by showing them how I myself is a keen blogger and twitterer and secondly by encouraging them to follow my example. This resulted recently in some ten or eleven blogs and a lot of interesting discussions in our LMS about the value of blogging and twittering in a traditional course.

However, formal education is not always beneficial for this way of doing active student learning. Whereas formal education is instrumental i.e. you are supposed to learn for the grade or for the future, participating and sharing on the net is for real and immediate i.e. you engage out of pure interest and not as a means of achieving something else.

Nina Bonderup Dohn has eloquently pointed out in an article that the application of Web 2.0 tools in formal education is built on the erronous conecption that it is possible to transfer the internal motivation driving voluntary participation on the net to formal education which is normally driven by external motivation (competition for credits, grades and exams).

Therefore, it is not a trivial matter to adopt web strategies in formal education. Of, course we could always pretend we are progressive up to date teachers and start Facebook groups or whatever. Still, we are framed within the confines of the university setting which impose legal and professional duties on us, particularly individual grading. These conditions will possibly leave us in an unresolvable dilemma.

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