Posted tagged ‘online learning’

The Average Joe imperative

24 June 2014

There once was a time when I thought Second Life was going to take over the world. Well, the virtual world.

I was so impressed with the technology – and amazed at its availability for free! – that I saw it as an unstoppable force.

Yet more fascinating for me was its implications for education. Web conferencing was starting to become popular around the same time, and while these days Skype and FaceTime are de rigueur, back then webcamming introduced a sorely needed human element to distance learning.

However, I noticed something peculiar with web conferencing. While the webcam presented the human face, the learning experience remained undeniably isolated. We were all together, yet each alone.

Second Life was different. Its animations reproduced not only the full human form, but also the learning environment: chairs, tables, stage, etc. Now (at least visually) we were all together. The irony was that by making the interaction entirely artificial, it made it more real.

A virtual learning session in Second Life

Alas, Second Life had an Achilles heel. While it was drop-dead easy to participate as a consumer, it was relatively difficult to participate as a producer.

For a start, if you wanted your own space, you had to buy your own virtual real estate. But worse, it was surprisingly hard to make stuff. I remember trying to build simple objects using the developer tools, but I struggled. So I’d give up, go back to it later when I could steal some time, only to abandon it again. Until I finally gave up for good.

Now I’m a fairly tech savvy kind of guy. While I can’t hack into NASA, I’m confident enough to give any software a go and not be put off by shiny new toys. But I was put off by this. And so too, it would seem, was the rest of the L&D world.

Graph of Gartner hype cycle showing that all new innovations follow the same predictable trajectory from hype to eventual application

The moral of the story is deeper than the Gartner hype cycle.

In fact, while we experienced a peak of inflated expectations with Second Life, and then the trough of disillusionment, I don’t think as a profession we ever reached the slope of enlightenment, let alone the plateau of productivity. Sure, some educators such as Sydney Medical School are doing wonderful things on the platform, but that’s hardly universal.

So what happened?

To me it’s simple: Second Life failed to accommodate Average Joe. If Joe wanted to attend a virtual conference or a meetup, he could do so with ease; however, if he wanted to host a virtual conference or create a meetup venue, that was beyond him.

And so Second Life sailed off the edge of the virtual world.

Statue of Achilles Thniskon

Compare Second Life’s journey to that of other products that have emerged recently. For example, everyone says that Articulate Storyline looks and feels like Microsoft PowerPoint. Well guess what… that’s the point.

Love it or loathe it, PowerPoint is easy to use. So hundreds of millions of people use it.

Articulate’s master stroke was to piggyback the usability of PowerPoint for their own purposes. And the proof of the pudding is in its eating. I am seeing Average Joes everywhere who wouldn’t touch other authoring tools with a 10-foot pole expressing an uncharacteristic willingness to give this one a go. That’s not by accident; it’s by design.

I predict a similar fate for other emerging technologies, be it Tin Can, augmented reality, responsive e-learning, or whatever else lay on the horizon.

Address the Average Joe imperative. Lest your Achilles heel becomes your fatal flaw.

Face time

16 September 2013

My wife and I are studying Foundations of Business Strategy together. And by “studying”, I mean we are watching the videos – which are excellent, by the way.

My wife is a marketing professional, while I’ve been in the corporate sector for most of my working life, so we find ourselves regularly pausing the videos and launching into conversation about what was said. And it’s great!

I’m learning from her, she’s learning from me, and we’re both learning from the professor. Much more so than if either of us were studying alone.

A Moai in a field on Rapa Nui

Of course, peer-to-peer interaction isn’t a novel concept in e-learning. We have asynchronous tools such as online discussion forums, synchronous tools such as instant messaging, and semi-synchronous tools such as Twitter.

To add voice to the conversation we can use teleconferencing or VoIP. To add faces we can use webcams and maybe, one day, holograms.

But what strikes me about my interaction with my study buddy is that it’s so natural. Of course we know each other well, but being at the same place at the same time means we can read each other’s body language, recognise non-verbal cues, and follow the rhythm of the conversation. Which makes for a rich learning experience.

I recall thinking along similar lines after attending the local meetups that I organised for my colleagues and members of the public who were participating in a particularly popular mooc. I had never attended a mooc meetup before, and I severely underestimated it. The opportunity for the attendees to put a face to a name, share their experiences, gripe about common problems, suggest ways to solve them, and simply feel less alone left a lasting impression on me.

Then for good measure, I read Helen Blunden’s gorgeous Sometimes You Just Need to Meet Your PLN Face-to-Face, in which she recounts her experience meeting up with her Twitter buddies while on holiday in the UK. My favourite part appears towards the end of her post:

Reflecting on the LPITweetUp, the gathering made me realise that the relationship with our PLN is strengthened when we include a face-to-face connection – and you only need one of those to transform what was a digital online relationship to a whole new different level to one which has impact, meaningful and memorable.

Helen's tweetup partners enjoying a refreshing beverage

So my suggestion is to face up to better instructional design.

By all means, continue to facilitate asynchronous discussions – they’re incredibly important. And if you can, organise synchronous sessions, preferably featuring the participants’ voices and faces.

But if you want to transform the digital online relationship to a whole new different level which has meaningful and memorable impact, the answer is clear: you need face time.

10 hot tips for moocers

1 April 2013

Now that I have participated in a mooc, I am naturally qualified to dispense expert advice about them. Lol!

Seriously though, one aspect of moocs that I think requires urgent attention is the sense that many participants feel of being overwhelmed. This was certainly the case for some in the EDCMOOC, and I fear I was too dismissive of the issue in my previous blog post.

Upon further reflection, I appreciate that what gave me an edge in this mooc was my experience in studying at postgraduate level. By that I don’t mean so much the knowledge acquired from the instructors, but (on the contrary) the skills developed in learning how to learn for myself.

You see, in postgrad you are left very much to your own devices. You are given a tonne of readings, and the most instruction you can hope to extract from the professors is “read this”. The theory is that the students will collaborate with one another, share their diverse experiences, and contribute to robust conversations. Too bad most of them are straight out of undergrad, inexperienced, and don’t have a collaborative bone in their body.

So if you actually want to learn something rather than skate through each subject, it’s up to you to do your prescribed readings, seek more from blogs and journals to enhance your understanding, reach out to your network to ask questions and gather feedback, and generally drive your own education.

The successful postgraduate student is highly motivated, autodidactic, connected, and participatory. I suggest the successful mooc participant shares these same qualities.

So what I’m really trying to say is: I’ve been there, done that. If you trust me, you may find the following tips useful as you embark on your own mooc voyage…

Tiny ship of order in a vast sea of chaos

  1. Before doing anything, ask yourself three fundamental questions.

    Firstly: “Why a mooc?” It may very well be the right mode of study for you, but of course there are many others to consider. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of this mode in light of your personal circumstances.

    Secondly: “Why this mooc?” There are plenty of them around, pitched at different levels and targeting different audiences. Analyse the pre-information of your chosen mooc to ensure it will give you what you need.

    Thirdly: “What do I want to get out of it?” Be very clear in your own mind about the WIIFM, then doggedly pursue that during the mooc.

    Having said that, remain open to new ideas that foster other lines of inquiry. Your goals may change. That’s fine; it’s called learning.

  2. Follow the sequence of the curriculum as arranged by the mooc coordinators. It may be tempting to jump ahead or even lag behind, but it’s wiser to pace yourself week by week.
     
  3. Read the mooc’s instructions! I’ve added the exclamation point in case you think words on screen are merely decorative. Sometimes they’re informative, so take notice.
     
  4. Prioritise the core videos and readings. At the very least, all these should be watched and read. The other stuff is a bonus if you get around to it.
     
  5. Participate actively in the discussion forum. This is your opportunity to share your understanding of the key concepts with your peers and receive valuable feedback from them.

    Don’t just talk at your peers, but rather engage with them. Reply to their posts, build upon their ideas and suggest alternative thoughts. Challenge them (politely) to clarify their position if they appear to be waffling.

  6. Blog. More specifically, use your blog to articulate your learnings from the mooc. Focus on the practical applications that you have drawn from the academic concepts.

    I found it helpful to use the discussion forum to post preliminary drafts of my ideas, refine them, then blog them.

  7. Concentrate your discussion activity on only one or two threads each week. You’ll go mad trying to keep up with all of them, so narrow your field of vision to what really matters to you.

    At the end of the week, abandon those threads. Again, this is about pacing yourself. While the conversation may be rich and rewarding, you can’t afford to go down any rabbit warrens.

    If you’re super keen, you can always continue the conversation with your new-found friends after the mooc has ended.

  8. Pick a social media platform to support your progress. I made the mistake of bouncing between Twitter, Google+ and Facebook in case I missed out on anything, but all that did was waste my time. Next time I’ll pick my favourite platform and stick with it.
     
  9. Do something daily. Whether it’s watching a video, reading an article, discussing an idea, writing a blog, liking something on Facebook, or mulling over a thought in your mind, it’s important to keep the momentum going.
     
  10. Think of moocing as informal learning. If you remember your WIIFM, it will ease the pressure that you put on yourself. You don’t have to finish the course. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. Assume control of your own actions, and become the master of your destiny.

In other words, be the tiny ship of order in the vast sea of chaos.

Reflections of a mooc unvirgin

12 March 2013

CherryI recently completed my first mooc, and I will soon receive the certificate to prove it.

Many people don’t think a certificate of completion means much, but this one will mean a lot to me. I put substantial time and energy into this course, so it will be satisfying to have something tangible to recognise it.

Before I signed up, I had decided to do a mooc because I was blogging about them but had never experienced one for myself. I considered doing Georgia Tech’s Fundamentals of Online Education via Coursera, but I wasn’t attracted to the introductory angle of the content. As it turned out, the course crashed under the weight of its own popularity, so I dodged a bullet there.

I also considered the independent(?) Educational Technology and Media mooc, but I was put off by its heavy connectivist approach. Not per se, mind you, but I was looking for more direction.

Eventually I settled on The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures mooc, because it targeted practising e-learning professionals who “want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age”, not to mention the fact I was fascinated by its coverage of popular culture.

So my first learning – before I even began – was that all moocs are different. You can’t tar them with the one brush.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the EDCMOOC. In my opinion, it had a lot going for it. Having said that, however, every course has its pro’s and cons, and this one was no exception…

Thumbs up

Pro’s

  • The mooc was well prepared. The pre-information on the Coursera site was useful, the promotional video was informative, and both were reinforced by a welcome email upon registration.
     
  • The virtual classroom environment was well structured. Not only were the content streams logically sequenced and accessible in advance, but the administrative aspects of the course were outlined under a dedicated “what, where, how and when” page. An announcement board kept us up to date, the discussion forums were easy to find, and the final assessment was explained clearly from Day 1.
     
  • The pedagogical approach of the course combined elements of both instructivism and constructivism. Each topic included an introduction covering the central concepts, plus a resources page comprising several video clips (not of lectures, but of creative works) and readings. I appreciated the readings being classified as “Core” or “Advanced”, as this allowed me to focus my energies on the ones that mattered, while getting around to the others if I had the time and inclination.
     
  • The duration of each topic was one week. This was enough time to get the work done, but not enough time to tempt you to sit on your laurels. I kept up to speed for the first 3 weeks, but I let the fourth week slip when real life got in the way. Thankfully the resources remained accessible, which allowed me to catch up afterwards.
     
  • The duration of the whole course was 5 weeks, which again I found to be just right. After the novelty of the first couple of weeks wears off, real life competes hard for your attention. In all honesty, I think I would have dropped out if it were any longer.
     
  • The course was supported by social media groups across several platforms, including Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. While I initially found this frustrating (having to bounce between them in case I missed out on anything), I now agree in hindsight that multiple platforms are a good idea – on the proviso that the Coursera-hosted forum remains the plenary. It makes no sense to me to force people onto one arbitrary platform which they otherwise would not use, and it was convenient to self-organise the 40,000 students into more manageable sub-groups.
     

Network Analysis of EDCMOOC Facebook group

  • Through the discussions in the course, participation in the social media groups, and comments on my blog posts, I connected with some incredibly smart people from all over the world. These connections will enrich my learning experience well after the course has ended.
     

EDCMOOC map

  • Assessment for the course was crowd-sourced. Each participant was charged with peer assessing the digital artefacts of at least three fellow participants – and this was enshrined as a requirement for your own completion. The final score was an average of the peer scores.
     
  • I used ThingLink for my digital artefact, which I had intended to try since I first heard about it over a year ago. This mooc gave me the nudge I needed. Incidental learning at its finest!
     
  • The proof of the pudding is in its eating, and at the end of the course I can unequivocally say I learned plenty. Some of the learnings were implicit thoughts that were made explicit, while others were novel ideas to which I would otherwise have remained ignorant. I blogged about my learnings along the way, being mindful to draw out the practical applications of the somewhat academic concepts.
     

Thumbs down

Cons

  • With 42,000 participants, it was inevitable that the discussion forum would be swamped. I witnessed many participants talking at their fellow students rather than with them, and some discussion threads ran on for pages and pages. Of course, this became less of a problem over time as huge numbers of participants dropped out, leaving the keen beans to carry on the conversation.
     
  • During Week 1 in particular, the discussion forum and social media groups were inundated with the likes of “Hi, I’m from Sao Paulo” and “Howdy from Texas”. While I’m a fan of social mores, I don’t specifically care where the 27,347th participant is from.
     
  • Hand-in-hand with the “happy greeter” was the “lost soul”. A lot of participants expressed anxiety at being overwhelmed by the mooc – which I found surprising. Not only were the weekly instructions quite clear, but the target audience was e-learning professionals who are, presumably, seasoned adult learners.
     
  • A bugbear of mine in any discussion forum is the “pretender” – ie someone who posts lofty statements with big words, yet devoid of any substance. There was no shortage of them in this mooc.
     
  • At the other end of the extreme, other participants’ contributions were woefully inadequate. In one thread, for example, the discussion descended into a list of sci-fi movies; no explanation as to how they were pertinent to the conversation, but oh what a list!
     
  • Another problem that popped up was the “parasite” – ie someone who signs up to a mooc just so they can spam the discussions with links to their own irrelevant content. Vomit.
     
  • As far as the course content is concerned, I felt the focus on pop culture was perhaps too strong. While the instructors tended to end each topic with a question about its implications for e-learning, that was rarely followed up in the discussions. In my opinion, the participants roasted the same old chestnuts (such as the spectre of big brother and the inequity of digital access in the third world) instead of synthesising connections to the practice of education in their own world.
     

Open palm

Suggestions for improvement

To be fair, the cons that I have listed above are not unique to the EDCMOOC, nor to online learning in general. I remember similar problems from my uni days on campus.

Nonetheless, they inform my following suggestions for improvement…

  • Week 1 should be set aside as a social week to allow the happy greeters to get their social proclivities out of their systems. It may be tempting to set aside a pre-week for this purpose, but the truth is it will bleed into Week 1 anyway.
     
  • The instructors need to be much more active in the discussions. I recommend they seed each week with a pinned discussion thread, which marks the official line of enquiry and discourages multiple (and confusing) threads emerging about the same concepts.
     
  • More importantly, the instructors should actively prompt, prod, guide and challenge the participants to engage in critical analysis. Explication of the implications for e-learning must be the outcome.
     
  • A moderator should delete the spam and ban the spammers.
     
  • A support page and discussion thread should be dedicated to helping the lost souls, so that they don’t pollute the rest of the course with their problems.
     

All in all, I am glad to report my first mooc experience was a positive one.

I won’t rush out to do another one in a hurry, but that’s simply because I know how demanding they are.

But one thing’s for sure, I will do another one at some stage. I look forward to it!