Looking forward

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Steve Jobs

“There is no escape from using online learning tools” – I thought when I registered for the Open Networked Learning course this Fall – “so I should have a better attitude and try to get the best out of it”.

I had a rough start. Google+ was the online platform selected for the course. I struggled to find my way within the different Google+ groups created for the whole class, and for the problem-based learning groups. But, where are the materials I need to read? Wait, I see… google documents… blogs… padlets… strange “fish-looking” documents meant to facilitate collaboration… Oh, no, I feel like “an octopus in a garage”, I think I have information overload… Then, the weekly google hangouts started. Finally, some human connection, things start to look a bit more concrete and less confusing.

Overall, what I mainly took away from this course perhaps, is that I am now a bit more familiar with online tools for collaboration. I have tried them, and therefore more willing to use them again in my research and teaching. In the near term, I will most likely use online tools in my research where there is a clear tendency towards open-access publications and sharing findings in social media. With increased social sharing, possibly our research can reach to wider audiences and the results have more impact on various sectors in society, not only academic but also on the general public.

But the course has also motivated me to think critically about online learning. After all our blogs and discussions, I am convinced that online learning is still a relatively immature field, and many of the tools used today need to be optimized to increase simplicity, making them more user-friendly, and to decrease the feeling of information overload that is so paralyzing and detrimental to learning. I also think we need to individually exert some kind of control regarding the quality of what we share online, which should be posted after a good amount of reflection and original thinking.

For future versions of this course, I would suggest to slow the pace at the beginning to allow students from different backgrounds to get familiar with the tools. I would keep the blogs as part of the evaluation of the course, and keep promoting that students give and receive feedback to their posts. The small problem-based learning groups are ideal to keep students motivated.

Finally, I would encourage expanding some of the Topics to promote reflections on the benefits and drawbacks of online compared to traditional forms of teaching and learning. As in science, it is important to keep an skeptic mind to new theories and findings. Let us keep a healthy degree of skepticism before embracing new online tools, and let us keep a critical mind to allow for the further development of the most useful tools that increase and enrich our productivity and our learning.

“That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” Steve Jobs.

 

 

 

 

 

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Using technologies to enable collaboration

With our increasingly mobile lifestyles, online collaborative learning is now a necessity. Virtual teams are formed by diverse members often located far away from each other, in different parts of an organization, different organizations, and sometimes different countries. How is online collaboration similar to or different from face-to-face collaboration, and what are the requirements and technologies that result in optimum online collaboration? While there are many similarities, the main difference between online and face-to-face collaboration is probably that online learning is about integrating various sources of knowledge acquired from wide social networks and sources, rather than merely knowledge acquisition, as recognized in the contemporary theory of learning called connectivism [1]. In this view, effective learners are those who can best handle vast quantities of sometimes contradictory information, and who can actively create and sustain collaborative networks. Learning is not anymore something that happens only inside a person’s head, but something that encompasses connections and tight bonds within large communities of learners [1, 2], which often lead to higher levels of complexity and self-organization, i.e., group learning that is of much higher value than merely summing the individual parts.  However, not everything is optimum in online learning, and some participants experience frustrations due to asymmetric collaboration caused by an imbalance in the level of commitment and the quality of the individual contributions, lack of shared goals, or difficulties communicating or using online tools [3].

Some reflection is therefore needed in order to address and fix the commonly reported frustrations, and thus improve motivation, attention and focus on the part of the students. Briefly, the online collaboration can be improved by (1) appropriate organization and planning on the side of instructors, and (2) by selecting the most suitable information technologies [4, 5].

(Point 1) Appropriate online course organization can be achieved if:

  • The purpose, expectations and assessment of the group project are explicit and clear.
  • Specific instructions and ground rules for proper participation are provided.
  • Due dates allow for sufficient time for the students to get used to working together and develop optimum working relationships.
  • Working groups are small to guarantee active participation from members.
  • Instructors are readily available to answer questions and orient the students.
  • Instructors provide specific and not too general information, which is relevant to carry out the collaborative project.

(Point 2) Most suitable technologies should meet specific standards, and some examples are given [4, 5]:

  • The collaborative work should be enjoyable, and therefore multimedia information (videos, blogs, images, quizzes) could improve collaboration.
  • ProofHub: allows for group chat, and sharing files and information.
  • MindMeister: allows planning, brainstorming on a mind map, live chat, synchronous and asynchronous tools.
  • Google Docs can be used for creating a document together, where changes are automatically saved, and which allows seeing who made changes.
  • BigMarker: web conferencing service using webinars which can be both synchronous or asynchronous.
  • SlideRocket: tool to create collaborative presentations.
  • Skype: provides voice, video, screen sharing, instant messaging, and direct file transfers.
  • Google hangouts: video and chat facility.
  • LinkedIn: when some team members need help for a task, instead of sending an e-mail to a single colleague, they have an established LinkedIn network and they ask for help there.
  • Blogging is a type of virtual grouping. It is a site for discussion and information sharing about a particular topic. In blogs, individuals discuss a specific topic and others can leave comments, ask questions and start a discussion. Although blogs are not actually virtual teams, teams often explore blogs to seek out information related to their work groups.

Our ONL class provides a good example of how a great number of the above mentioned approaches have been put in practice. Regarding the course organization (Point 1), I think that one of the keys to the success of the ONL course is the splitting of the class in small learning groups (“PBL groups”), which allowed for increased feedback and interaction among group members. The instructor and facilitator were very much available to improve collaboration and provided frequent feedback. Two points for improvement could be: first, allowing more flexible due dates for assignments, especially for the first few projects, as this would allow participants to get more used to the online tools and the PBL group dynamics. Second, somewhat filtering the amount of information given to the participants. Regarding this last point, perhaps this is just a general feature of online learning, which participants need to get used to and learn to handle complexity and quantity of information, and focus more on the connection among pieces of information and interacting with other course participants.

Regarding online tools (Point 2) used, the ONL course organizers have encouraged trying as many tools as possible, including Tricider, SlideShare, Google hangouts, Prenzi, presentation of projects in the form of videos, LinkedIn and blogs, to name just a few. I have personally learned a lot regarding the use of online tools. As online learning and collaborating is still a relatively immature field, some of these software tools present with some challenges and usability issues, which we experienced for example when tools including Google+ go through updates. As the collaborative software is rapidly expanding, time will allow for the selection of the most efficient tools that facilitate efficient and effortless learning: this is at least the hope and promise of future online collaboration.

References:

[1] Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

[2] Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice(pp. 179-198). Springer London.

[3] Capdeferro, N., & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences?. The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44.

[4] Wheelan, S. A. (2016). “Creating effective teams”. Chapter 11: “Virtual teams”. SAGE Publications, Inc., 5th edition.

[5] “6 online collaboration tools and strategies for boosting learning”, http://elearningindustry.com/6-online-collaboration-tools-and-strategies-boosting-learning

Digital me

Image

Digital literacy is defined as the “engagement with digitally mediated information” on the web, including reading, writing and participating [1]. Included in the concept of digital literacy is also how we place ourselves with respect to the digital space. Digital users can be classified along a continuum between so-called “visitors” and “residents” [2], and this classification may depend on the context (for example, personal vs. professional use). The classification of users in terms of “visitors” and “residents” allows a flexible understanding of the digital users, where their behavior depends on motivation to engage in different contexts (personal vs. professional as examples). In visitor mode, users have a specific goal in mind, search for information and use it without leaving a trace online. In resident mode, users live part of their lives on the web [2], they are more interactive than in visitor mode, and produce content that can be traced online and which says something about who they are.

This course has made me reflect on my behavior as user of digital media, and I realized that I behave differently in personal and professional contexts. For personal use I use very few tools, mostly Facebook, where I can place myself somewhere between visitor and resident, leaning towards the visitor side. In Facebook for example, I post a few comments or photos occasionally, but I don’t use it so much to either organize events or as a means to express personal or political views.

In professional aspects – in contrast – I have slowly moved towards the “resident” category of digital users. For academic researchers, reputation and productivity are mostly measured by the amount and quality of peer-reviewed scientific publications, most often measured in terms of “impact factor” (an index that classifies journals depending on numbers of citations that their articles accumulate).

In the last few years, a number of online tools have become available for researchers to post their professional profiles including their publication records. Some of the most popular tools include: Google Scholar, ResearchGate and LinkedIn. As my colleagues have opened their profiles in those sites, I have sooner or later also created my own profile, where I keep an updated list of accomplishments and publications.

Recently, there is an increasing move towards greater availability of open-access research results. First, funding agencies are increasingly requiring all financially-supported research results to be made publicly available for free. Second, peer-reviewed journals are now encouraging and facilitating researchers to make their articles open access, however often charging extra publication fees. And third, an increasing number of editorials are becoming completely open access. As more open-access articles can be found by many researchers worldwide a new phenomenon is taking place. New article metrics have been developed that have started to keep a record of how often articles are accessed, downloaded, referred to in blogs, Google+ or tweeted…, as a sort of measure of the “online impact” of articles. One example of such metric is the “Altmetrics” score [3], which is an index that summarizes the online presence and what people are saying online about a given article. A higher Altmetrics score is given when articles are linked on Facebook, Twitter, news outlets, or mentioned in blogs and Google+ posts [3]. The advent of social media is therefore changing or at least offering alternative ways of how scientific output is measured. Tools like Altmetrics are useful in that they allow to get an impression on the public engagement of a new paper before it can even receive formal citations from other papers. However, the popularity of an article in social media needs to be taken with some caution, as it might not always necessarily represent a reliable indication of high research quality [4].

Social media is a powerful new phenomenon with yet incompletely understood impacts. How much effort then should we spent nowadays in developing higher levels of digital literacy, and in which context (personal or professional) is most appropriate to do so?  The answer mostly depends on individual motivations and goals. In my personal case, I found that digital literacy is most useful in the professional (academic) context. However, until we fully understand the broader implications of social media, we should take a careful approach where we can combine digital with more traditional ways of sharing information. In the academic context, I have found myself moving a bit more towards resident status, while I also believe that social media should not replace but instead complement how scientific research is assessed. For personal aspects, I like to keep using social media in moderation.

 

[1] “Digital literacy”, Sara Mörtsell, http://www.slideshare.net/saramortsell/digital-literacy-onl152

[2] “Visitors and residents”, David White, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPOG3iThmRI&feature=youtu.be; http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3171/3049

[3] Altmetric, http://www.altmetric.com/

[4] “Research impact: Altmetrics make their mark” (2013), Roberta Kwok, Nature 500, 491-493, doi:10.1038/nj7463-491a, http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7463-491a

 

 

 

Supporting and motivating students in online learning environments

Research has shown that motivation is essential to learning. The face-to-face interaction between teachers and students in campus-based learning allows for traditional ways to keep students motivated. A number of reasons explain how students remain motivated in campus-based classrooms. To start with, students and their families have often paid high tuition fees and there can be substantial monetary and  psychological costs associated to “dropping out”. Aside from this important reason, other social components allow students to persevere in their campus-based course: students form groups who study together in the library, do their homework together and make new friends. Moreover, the campus courses offer additional discussion sections in small groups where students can discuss and comment in a relaxed environment, and many teachers and teaching assistants provide extra office hours for consultation. Also, teachers in lectures allow for interactive exchange where students are encouraged to ask questions and give their opinions.

Mass open online courses are a relatively new phenomenon, and as such it is still somewhat immature. Because of the initial lack of experience, online courses have originally focused on knowledge-centered learning where the role of the teacher was seen as that of “providing knowledge”. However, as students increasingly participate in online courses, they suddenly were able to access a wide variety of information and knowledge resources that were beyond what one teacher could offer [1,2]. Therefore, the online teacher should instead be able to offer something beyond mere knowledge provision. Otherwise, students may lose motivation and drop out. In fact, the statistics have shown high dropout rates from mass open online courses. What can online teachers do to promote motivation and prevent the dropouts?

Teachers need to change their mindset and adapt to new methods that are more suited to online learning. One of the solutions proposed by pedagogy scholars and experts in e-learning is that teachers need to be open-minded and flexible in their pedagogical methods. Probably the most important advice to teachers is that they should change their conception of the role of the teacher from that of “knowledge-provision” to more of “support and scaffolding the learning process of the student”. In fact, this change of mindset can be summarized as that from “teacher-focused” to “student-focused” learning. As the students feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they find on the net, the teachers are there to guide them and provide a scaffold [3]. In this new paradigm, learning is not so much about absorbing and retaining information, but it is instead about connecting existing ideas and collaborating with other students. In order to keep the motivation high and to provide scaffold, some practical advice for teachers is to provide a good amount of feedback to the students and also let the students give feedback to each other. In our ONL 152 course, I have experienced this type of feedback by the use of blogs, online presentations, and collaboration using diverse tools including tricider and slideshare. I admit that I was originally skeptical about the possibility of collaborating in the virtual environment. It certainly takes time to get to know the other students in the online environment, but with time the learning groups start to look more like actual teams. In this view, online learning allows for a type of team-like collaboration that is not that different than would be possible in the face-to-face environment. It only perhaps took a bit longer.

 

[1] “The theory and practice of online learning”, Terry Anderson (Ed.) (2008)

[2] “The 7Cs of learning design”, G. Conole (2015).

[3] “Scaffolding For Online Learning: Interview with Gilly Salmon, Author of E-Tivities”,  http://moocnewsandreviews.com/scaffolding-for-online-learning-interview-with-gilly-salmon-author-of-e-tivities/#ixzz3rewbEWGD

Including openness in education: Combining a learning management system with an open-access environment

Nowadays, university courses commonly adopt a “learning management system” (LMS) as an integral tool used by students and teachers to share information in a relatively open and safe manner. Some examples of LMSs are Blackboard and Ping Pong. The increasing use of these tools has already promoted increased digital literacy among students, and growing familiarity with the practice of open-access information. The advantage of LMSs over open-access environments is that students feel less afraid of sharing information that could be regarded as sensitive if posted in completely open-access environments [1].

Although LMSs are not completely open-access environments, their educational value cannot be underestimated. By regularly using LMSs, students become familiar with sharing and collaborating and they start to develop skills that will be valuable in their transition towards potentially more open-access environments.

I am currently planning a two-week course for PhD students interested in neuroscience topics including both theoretical and experimental aspects. As I am planning to integrate digital learning in this course, I will first check the policies at my institution regarding the use of open-access tools. As I am not yet proficient in open-access teaching and learning, I will focus at first on the wide use of the LMS in the class. The use of the LMS will be relatively straightforward as students are already familiar with it, and its main advantage is that it is a secure system that allows keeping a record of the performance and progress of the students, facilitating their evaluation.

In addition to the LMS, the course will incorporate the use of open-access environments in order to fulfill part of the course requirements. The main advantage of open-access environments is that students have access to wider groups of people to collaborate with and get feedback from. However, some drawbacks include confidentiality issues, and the risk of information overload and distraction of the students who may get sidetracked from their main learning objectives in the course [2,3]. I am in particular against incorporating Facebook or Tweeter in my class. While Facebook and Tweeter are valuable sources of information and entertainment, I believe that these tools are not appropriate for learning in a focused PhD course, as the students typically associate these websites with their friends, family and free time. Instead, I will promote the writing of blogs where students can reflect on selected topics from the course, and where they can receive and provide feedback to each other.

Research has shown that a big challenge of using open-access tools in higher education is the risk of overusing these tools, which can lead to a loss of focus on the specific learning goals. To overcome this, I will incorporate the use of open-access environments in order to fulfill only up to a maximum of 15% of the course requirements. At the end of the course, I will collect feedback from the students on their experience of combining LMSs and open-access blogs, and try to assess their positive or negative experiences. If the use of open-access learning is successful, I could consider increasing its use in future courses. I am however relatively conservative when it comes to the use of digital tools, and therefore I will only incorporate open-access tools gradually and always assessing their usefulness to enhance rather than distract from learning.

References:

[1] “Learning to teach online: Learning management system or the open web?” http://online.cofa.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/episode-pdf/LMS_or_open_LTTOn.pdf

[2] “The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload”, Daniel Levitin (2014)

[3] “Digital resilience in higher education”, http://www.eurodl.org/?p=current&article=559