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My contribution to the Debate: “The VLE affords discussion-based activities”

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Posted under the heading: Sitting on the fence, skinning a stag.

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Can you see me now?

Online synchronicity remains a fragile thing. Sure Skype’s great for finding out what distant relatives look and sound like this year, but go to it for some last minute pre-dissertation-submission supervision, for example, and discover that it really isn’t all that reliable.

And that just requires two successful logins. Multiply the number of people using such a tool and the possibility that somebody is finding themselves on the outside looking for a way in grows exponentially.

My recent experiences of OSLE’s (online synchronous learning environments) are a mixed bag, but are they typical?

  • Synchronous events that work better asynchronously: I was a sometime lurker on the “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” MOOC of 2011 which featured regular Elluminate sessions. Things worked out more or less OK whenever I managed to make it along, but mostly I caught up with the recorded sessions either online or as an mp3, which meant bus journeys punctuated by plaintiff cries of “Jeff, we can’t hear you”. The sessions themselves felt like lectures rather than seminars, and maybe could have been delivered in better quality as voice over ppt via youtube. But that’s another story.
  • The silent approach: “Crossing Virtual Boundaries – Teaching and Research with Online¬†Synchronous Learning Environments”. Great event, but the breakout session I was most interested in, on encouraging reflective learning, suffered from audio problems that invited ‘this is why I don’t use these tools’ kinds of observations in the chat forum.
  • I’m in a whiteboard room, I can’t see anything: Wimba Pronto appears to make it very difficult to get back to a whiteboard session if you accidentally close it. Since the thing is basically about 5 different windows (at least on a Mac), it seems likely that somebody will close a window in the effort to keep the thing tidy and then wander around some kind of e-carpark looking for the door back in.
I don’t think I’m an old misery guts or slow to move with the times. I love the spontaneity and now-ness of classroom interaction, and have had some pretty successful experiences with Elluminate and dimdim (as was), but I’ve had to grit my teeth through too many frustrating and time-wasting sessions to want to use this as a substantial or critical part of any learning programme.

Welcome Audio Message in Week 1

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Was pleased to find an audio hello message in Week 1. Here’s some of the things I liked about it:

  • It felt more personal, friendly and informal than it would have done in writing
  • I was able to listen to it while doing something else (actually a course to do list)
  • It looked both backwards and forwards – in summarising some aspects of where we are and how we got here, I realised I missed out on some reading for example.

Day 1 reflections

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Have just spent 3 hours in Blackboard “Preparing Online Courses”. Apparently the course shouldn’t take as much as 4 hours a week, so I’m going to learn a lot about being more efficient in online study!

Begin with your own thoughts

A week and a half from a departmental session on web technologies, the VLE, web2.0 and so on, I decide to brainstorm some ideas for

  1. content
  2. activities (the lucky beggars will be sat in front of real life computers)

So I start with what I have in my head and bubbl.us, a brainstorming website which is a little clunky but does the job of allowing one idea to lead to another and another until there are so many that I need to delete some. Then I go to Google docs and begin to assemble all this into lists.

Admiring my work, I notice it has very little scholarly content and I haven’t considered a single journal article nor, indeed, consulted the work of colleagues who I know have done similar sessions.

So I go to diigo and see that I have bookmarked a ton of stuff on this topic and begin interleaving the lists with supporting info.

I reckon this is a reasonable approach for topics like this, where:

  • I know something about it
  • any kind of search would become a wade into a torrent

Technology for learning; technology for teaching


Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

–W.B. Yeats

If you ask ‘why use technology in learning?’ You get a lot of obvious and interesting answers e.g.:

  • the right tool for the job: twenty first century learners must use twenty first century tools,
  • the explosion of information in every subject area means teacher telling the kids how it is is less valuable than previously
  • lifelong learning. More than ever education is about learning to (re-and un-)learn, to adapt, to make decisions.
  • the knowledge economy: the skills kids (and not just kids) are going to need are handling the masses of information they are subject to.
  • the range of stimulating media and activities available through technology
  • personalisation: the ability to fashion your own route through content when and as it suits you
  • collaboration may not necessarily be easier online, but it can be more multifaceted, involve more people and go on over a longer hours, days even weeks.

Indeed, most teachers assume that learners will be using technology, particularly the internet, as part of their studies be it looking at online journals, wikipedia, or Google. My Y7 daughter regularly gets homework which requires creative use of search engines, word processors, graphics editors and occasionally spreadsheets. She does this while managing a stream of interactions on Bebo and MSN, occasionally with other kids doing the same homework.

Why? Because it’s fun.

Most teachers would characterise these as being solitary, remote activities best done at home or in the Learning Centre/ITC suite/information commons or whatever the institution calls the place that learners can access the internet. Interaction between learners in these real and virtual spaces may sweeten the pill, but the tasks aren’t seen primarily as collaborative.

Overseeing net-research isn’t part of the teacher’s role. To return to Yeats, you’re unlikely to light the educational fire while the students are variously checking their email, looking at wikipedia and messaging their friends.

So what is it that teachers do and where might technology fit in? Teachers are typically engaged in (off the topic of my head);

  • assessment
  • control/management of learner behaviour
  • ‘modeling’ behaviours, attitudes and values
  • selecting what will be learned, in which ways, for how long, in which contexts and to what ends
  • giving feedback on performance/learning
  • enthusing, cajoling, entertaining, challenging
  • ‘making it real’: giving context to learning

Technology will be used by teachers to the extent that they enhance their performance of these tasks by making them easier, quicker and more effective. So far technology has largely been used to give jazzier presentations (multimedia on the IWB etc.) and perhaps quicker feedback. Teachers who place a premium on student-to-student interaction have pointed out that technology is being used to enhance teacher ‘delivery’, not student participation.

This is partly to do with a scarcity of technology in the classroom: there is usually only one computer (if that) which the teacher controls. But this isn’t the case when it comes to homework, in which solitary ‘research and report’ use of the internet remains the most common technological scenario.

It’s not too difficult to come up with a reasonable list of reasons for teachers not to use technology:

  • it’s hard to keep up with pace of change
  • lack of institutional support (technical, pedagogic, even legal)
  • hard to find acceptable models of assessment that align with e.g. use of web2.0 tools,
  • inevitable technical glitches
  • long track record of failed ‘elearning’ projects,
  • supervising online interaction extends teachers’ hours which isn’t reflected in current working arrangements

If teachers are going to have to change the way they teach because of technology and if this change is not well supported by institutions then it is not going to happen. It will be interesting to see how far the vision of open lifelong learning fuelled by technology is able to enter mainstream educational culture.