Thursday, May 28, 2009

4.3.2, 3.4.6: Social presence through MP3 recordings and online discourse

Robinson (2009) overviews a startlingly simple yet effective means of increasing social presence in formal education at a distance: recording interviews in MP3 format with experts (a "practicing professional" in Robinson's case), uploading the audio file to a virtual learning environment (VLE), and having the guest facilitate a two-week online discussion relating to the topic discussed.

Simple. And, as the results of Robinson's article in Open Learning (24:2, 127-139), effective.

Robinson proposes the approach as a viable one for a 'virtual residential school', essentially a replacement for block courses. Itis hard to be enthusiastic about this based on the survey results provided in the paper. Although the exercise was optional, the student survey results only permit a "tentative" (p.136) equivalency to a residential experience, and there was a high instance of lurkers. This aside, the pedagogical approach is commendable.

This paper highlights again that distance education need not compromise its place flexibility to be an effective means of education. The approach isn't rocket science, but it works. It's beauty is its simplicity and accessibility.

So, why the link to 4.3.2 (Social presence: the basis of community) and 3.4.6 (Topic design)?

Social presence is linked to community; Robinson (2009, p.128) mentions Hillery's (1955) identification of "locality and a sharing of common interests" as core aspects of community. If the VLE serves as the 'location', and if students are engaging in a discussion of mutual interest, then community can be said to exist. However Robinson also differentiates between 'community' and 'belonging', the latter requiring a psychological connection with the membership of community. This is an excellent differentiation; it is one thing to be 'in' a community, quite another to sense one's belonging to it. With this distinction, it could be said that online tutors ought to consider how to develop a sense of student belonging in a course, rather than establish community (which is rather automatic in Hillery's view). Robinson's article also finishes with a reminder that not all students are 'into' online community; some just want to get their qualification, without any fuss.

Why topic design? Well, the beautiful simplicity of what Robinson has proposed lends itself nicely to a 'supplemental resources' or 'interpersonal communication' approach to instrcutional design.

A timely reminder that simple yet thoughtful use of technology can engage students.

[Image "Universe of the floating Rocks: Rocket Launch Rock" Uploaded on March 2, 2009
by T.Oechsner]

4.4: A review of social learning theory and Web-Based Learning Environments

The latest American Journal of Distance Education features an article by Hill et al called "Social Learning Theory and Web-Based Learning Environments: A Review of Research and Discussion of Implications" (23:2, 88-103). The article concerns itself with formal, rather than informal settings (great to see the distinction being made in literature) and seems to assume engagement leading to community rather than the "must develop community first" emphasis that underlies other perspectives outlined in the E-Primer.

The paper follows a very useful structure relating to key variables, and their application:

  • Provide opportunities for creating and sharing in-depth messages
  • Enable support by more knowledgeable others
  • Encourage interaction by the instructor and peers
Group and class size
  • Monitor group size to enable support from more knowledgeable others (i.e., peers)
  • Monitor class size to enable consistent and engaged interaction
  • Encourage effective use of postings and other resources
  • Provide strategies to identify, interpret, and utilize resources

Culture and Community
  • Facilitate online interactions so they meet the needs of learners from a variety of cultures
  • Provide multiple formats for communication to meet differing cultural needs
  • Facilitate connection-building in small and large groups
  • Support collaborative activities

Learner Characteristics
Epistemological beliefs
  • Take into consideration reflective thinking abilities
  • Gain an understanding of epistemological beliefs of students to guide design
Individual learning styles
  • Gain an understanding of learning styles to guide design
  • Enable different levels of interaction to accommodate individual learning styles
  • Enable choice in interactions to minimize social anxiety
  • Promote self-regulated learning
  • Incorporate authentic activities
  • Send messages regularly to motivate learners

This is, in my view, an excellent overview of issues and a good structure for considering online discussion.

Mention is made of Angeli et al's (2000) 'starter' and 'wrapper' technique, one not mentioned in the E-Primer but one worthy of note here. The 'starter' is a nominated student who frames a discussion based on a particular reading, setting the scene for the online discussion to follow. The 'wrapper' is another student who provides an effective summary of the conversation once the exercise is completed. The 'starter' and 'wrapper' tend to respond deeply themselves, and as the technique is used across a course the overall level of interaction also increases. We use this technique successfully in one course at Laidlaw College, where a student will take on the role of both 'starter' and 'wrapper' for one particular topic of the overall course.

Another key lesson from the paper concerns the dangers of being too prescriptive when designing online discourse opportunities, which can stifle new ideas and rob motivation. There is a real tension here, one mentioned in section 4.1.1 of the E-Primer. The problem is that setting up an online topic that is too loose can result in a perception that the instructor is distant, and the conversation itself too unstructured. This tension also applies to the actual role of the online instructor, as stated in the E-Primer (p.43):
There is a tension, a balance, a restrained enthusiasm required for success in online instruction. Evidence suggests that instructors should err on the side of enthusiastic participation rather than absenteeism.

Modelling is also identified in the Hill et al article as a key success factor, and is mentioned in sections 4.5.3 and 4.5.4.

Overall the paper reinforces the accuracy of E-Primer 4, though the link to student's own epistemological beliefs and learning styles (see also previous entry) are both avenues worthy of further consideration.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

3.2: Designing based on learning styles for the online environment

Research by Battalio (2009) in AJDE suggests a strong link between learning styles (based on Index of Learning Styles or ILS) and success in various online education formats. The study particularly considers the different outcomes between collaborative and self-directed versions of the same communications course.

The ILS learning style model considers learner preferences across four scales, each with two extremes (active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, sequential/global). of these, four extremes would prima facie appear to offer the best mix for online learning:
  • Reflective - those who prefer to think more than interact.
  • Intuitive - prefer discovery rather than facts.
  • Verbal - those who get more from words than visual presentations.
  • Global - 'big picture' rather than linear learners.

The results of the study do, in fact, demonstrate that reflective types have the advantage - but this is the case for both collaborative and self-directed course designs. Active learners perform better in collaborative courses. Sequential learners are also advantaged, particularly in self-directed courses (though a different study has found that global learners are better off).

So, what do we make of this? Well, reflective learners are clearly more suited to forms of online learning - be it collaborative or self-directed. They are very adaptable! This, no doubt, must echo other studies performed on higher education in general. While the conclusions of this paper suggest that a collaborative version of a course is preferable to giving students a preference-based choice for self-directed or collaborative, there are factors beyond student learning-style preference that ought to drive pedagogical decisions. It would be very interesting to be able to probe the differences between the self-directed and collaborative versions of the communications course itself, to get a better feel for the differences. Still, this study does indicate that self-directed instruction in isolation does not maximise a distance education experience. Collaboration in online learning can be to the advantage of all.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

4.2: Casual MSN: Surprising results

A study by Rutter (2009) in the latest ALT-J considers the informal use of MSN in higher education, particularly in a very large computer commons. The result: students using MSN (or Messenger-style applications) not at all and extensively have the advantage over those students who use it sparingly. This is actually an unusual and counter-intuitive result. Rather than intermediate students being disadvantaged, it is easier to imagine students using it too much (being distracted) or not at all (missing out) as being at risk. Students in the survey were studying computing modules, and used MSN for both social and academic purposes. Many students reported disabling MSN when they want to concentrate on their study.

It is worth mentioning that students who did not use MSN at all had a slight edge over those who used it all of the time, however it is also essential to remember that there are many more factors involved in student success than whether or not they make use of MSN! One question that remains with me: Is MSN use a result of student success rather than a determinant of it? In other words, could it be that those students who tend to have successful study habits are extreme in their use of MSN - either using it all of the time or never at all? Could it be that heavy users are more aware of their need to use MSN strategically, and that non-users use their discretion to not use a medium they perceive as not offering them any value for the purposes of study?

Rutter proposes further investigation, noting that "it may turn out that highly socialised, networked students make better learners, whether they use the application or not" (p.43). By this, he presumably means that non-users are sufficiently socialised offline to not need to use MSN and high users best know how to exploit the tool to benefit them. Without further detail on how high-users are using MSN, it is difficult to be definite. Studies such as this demonstrate how little is really known about the use of MSN and other synchronous chat tools in formal education.

3.2: Research-based evidence for instructional design principles

The latest ALT-J includes the results of a study by Cebei et al investigating e-learning instructional design. The study considers those design elements relating to online courses, that is, courses where instructional materials are optimised for access over the Internet.

Based on a set of interviews with experts, the following key predictors of student success were isolated from instructional design literature:
  • the length of text
  • use of examples and applications
  • exercises (quizzes and homework)
  • multimedia
  • visual integrity
When a variety of actual courses and their grade averages were evaluated acording to these variables, the study found that each of these five factors have a positive influence on students' final grades. The use of examples and applications was identified as the most effective variable.

It is important to get these variables in context. Firstly, they assume a particular approach to course design and communications between educator and student that are not adequately described. This means that, for example, tutorial support is not necessarily considered in the study as being of any relevance. So, it could be that the five variables above are optimal only for those courses that are deliberately designed to be based on individual study. Secondly, and as the authors freely admit, the study considers only instructional design variables. Other determinants of student success are ignored.

Essentially the guides here for online courses are keep text short, use plenty of examples, give plenty of opportunity for feedback, make extensive use of multimedia, and make it look great. These remind me of Horton's excellent book Designing Web-based training, one of the earliest e-learning specific 'how-to' guides. Which, in turn, reminds me of one of my concerns with these principles from Cebeci et al. The courses used for the statistical analysis are all numbered '101', and Horton's book emphasises the term training. I wonder how apt these principles might be for second- and third-year degree study, or for post-graduate instructional design. As with all such studies, the context and assumptions underpinning what is analysed becomes a critical consideration, and one which all e-learning researchers must be wary of.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

1.1.2: Concerns with connectivism

I had written this as a part of a journal submission that was declined by peer reviewers (one said, "Yes! We need this!" the other, it needed too much rework...) and my research time is now fully concerned with E-Primer 5. Someone requested a look at my thoughts on connectivism (also discussed in the eBCNZer blog) - so, here is an extract from a failed journal article which started as a book chapter (the book itself was never launched). In context, this extract is part of a challenge to Web 2.0 as a viable basis for formal education. Sorry to use the Brighouse quote yet again...

Epistemological problems I: In search of a theory

Epistemological questions relate to what it means to know, and how knowledge is acquired. Theories such as behaviourism, constructivism and social constructivism are attempts to describe how people assimilate information into knowledge and develop perspectives that make sense of reality. Someone with a behaviourist perspective (who sees a direct connection between stimuli and response) will see didactic teaching as highly effective, whereas social constructivists (who see value in sharing understanding interpersonally from different perspectives) would probably rather see learners debating and sharing experiences. Web 2.0-based advocates tend not to consider these epistemological platforms. Instead ‘connectivism’, a theory proposed by Siemens (2004, 2006), is popularly cited as a more appropriate way of describing what it means to know and learn in a connected world. It is important here to explore how connectivism departs from other epistemological theories.

In connectivism, learning is said to take place across a network rather than within an individual. The departure of connectivism from other epistemologies is not that it assumes learning to be complex or that knowledge is dynamic or that understanding is personalized (these are also characteristic of social constructivism). The key difference is that in connectivism knowing where and knowing who are more important than knowing what and knowing how, because our “information rich world requires the ability to first determine what is important, and then how to stay connected and informed as information changes” (Siemens 2006, p. 32).

Connectivism is readily descriptive of learning in professional contexts. Lawyers don’t memorise legislation, but they know where to find the answers they need and who to talk to if they can’t find answers or need another opinion. However lawyers are already educated people. In order to determine what is important, lawyers must first know what they are looking for and how it will benefit them. While it is true that they must keep in touch with the ever-dynamic use of particular forms of legislation and keep apace with legal precedent, they do so within a particular conceptual framework. Missing from the connectivism assertion is an adequate appreciation of the underlying knowledge-base and filtering processes lawyers must already possess within themselves in order to meaningfully take advantage of the knowledge networks they draw from. Lawyers know what the legal system is about, and how it works because they have been trained into the system. To benefit from knowing where and knowing who, you must first have developed a coherent framework of what and how. It is precisely this that formal education seeks to provide its apprentices with. In his commentary Brighouse (2006) puts it plainly:
the critical thinking skills involved in autonomy can neither be developed nor exercised without the ease of access to a considerable amount of information which is provided only by having learned and internalized it… the idea that [students] might develop the more complex skills of reasoning about information without having a good deal of it instantly available is silly (pp. 23-24).

Connectivism is a wonderful means of describing the ways in which professionals and organizations tend to learn. However it is concerning that the theory might be cited as evidence that the knowing what and knowing how emphases of formal education should be displaced. The development of critical thinking and autonomous learning skills drawing on where and who (including the ability to meaningfully contribute to a connected world) relies on a coherent platform of pre-requisite, internalized knowledge – the how and what.

E-Primer 4 - "Online discourse" released!

E-Primer 4, "Online discourse", is available now from the Ako Aotearoa Web site. Many thanks to Cathy Gunn and Bill Rosenberg (reviewers), to Ako Aotearoa for their understanding about deadline slippage, and to Kate Hunt for her editing prowess! The E-Primer considers the theory and practice of synchronous and asynchronous communications for e-learning (it leaves social networking and associated dynamics for E-Primer 5). E-Primers 1, 2 and 3 are available to the right of this post.

This has been by far the most challenging E-Primer to compile - mainly because of the substantial literature that exists. It is a reasonably comprehensive literature review, but the point of it all has been to establish good practice guidelines and orientate the reader to the ongoing conversation about the use of communications tools in e-learning. As usual I have tried to avoid the speculative and focus instead on the actual results of objective studies.

This, from the Introduction:

Communication is at the very centre of education, so it’s not surprising that educators have rapidly adopted recent developments in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to improve the reach and effectiveness of their teaching. Successes with online bulletin boards first emerged from studies in the late 1980s (Mason & Kaye 1989), and innovation with desktop videoconferencing soon followed. Instructors who want to engage distance learners or interact with their on-campus learners in new ways can now choose from a variety of proven online applications.

In this e-primer, you will discover both the promise of formal online discourse (that is, conversation mediated through internet tools) for education, and good practice. Throughout, I encourage you to apply online discourse in ways that are conducive to teaching and learning. The focus in this e-primer is more on the discourse than the technology although, inevitably, we will consider technology. In E-Primer 5, E-xtending Possibilities, we will look at interactive journals (blogs), collaboration through wiki tools, working with ePortfolios, and the potential of social networking tools such as MySpace and Facebook for education. Here, in E-Primer 4, we will limit our attention to synchronous chat, desktop audio- and videoconferencing, and the online bulletin or discussion boards that are common in learning management systems (LMSs). Because LMSs are commonly used in distance education and blended learning courses (MacDonald 2006; Hopkins et al 2008), we’ll look closely at them and their features.
Updates will continue through this blog. E-Primer 5 is currently half-way through drafting. I welcome any feedback on the work, particularly if major works and ideas have been missed. There are some findings that are actually contradictory to much of the 'common wisdom' relating to online discourse, particularly with regards to social presence.

The E-Primer series is made available under a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

5.*: Challenging the assumptions of 'm'

I am embroiled in writing E-Primer 5, "eXtending possibilities"; at present I am focusing on particular on m-learning. A recently released eBook, "Mobile Learning: Transforming the delivery of education and training" is an ad-hoc and broad compilation of chapters from academics around the world (mostly UK). What prompts me to blog here is the paradigm the book adopts in its opening chapters.

Ally (2009, p.1) presents the utopian vision for m-learning:
Learners will not have to wait for a certain time to learn or go to a certain place to learn. With mobile learning, learners will be empowered since they can learn whenever and wherever they want. Also, learners do not need to learn what is prescribed for them.

Traxler, in the first chapter of the eBook (2009, p.10) continues in a similar vein:
Looking at mobile learning in a wider context, we have to recognize that mobile, personal, and wireless devices are now radically transforming societal notions of discourse and knowledge, and are responsible for new forms of art, employment, language, commerce, deprivation, and crime, as well as learning. With increased popular access to information and knowledge anywhere, anytime, the role of education, perhaps especially formal education, is challenged and the relationships between education, society, and technology are now more dynamic than ever.

Later (p.14) he adds:
Learning that used to be delivered “just-in-case,” can now be delivered “just-in-time, just enough, and just-for-me.” Finding information rather than possessing it or knowing it becomes the defining characteristic of learning generally and of mobile learning especially, and this may take learning back into the community.

(Emphasis added). I think I'm finally able to explain my concern with this sort of thinking. In response to Ally, formal education is not inherently disempowering and neither does it seek to treat a prescribed curriculum as all there is to know. Formal education is a means to a transformed mind; in the words of Montaigne, it seeks to 'make minds not fill them'. And, formal education is not about access to information and knowledge. So, in response to Traxler's first point above, m-learning represents an opportunity to formal education and not a challenge. Further, it is way too simplistic to differentiate learning based on it being 'just-in-case' or 'just-in-time'. This ignores completely the value and mechanisms of formal education. When has anyone ever 'needed' Plato? Seneca? Postman? Rorty? Or, perhaps better relating to e-learning folk, Shirky? Yet these thinkers and their perspectives continue to open minds, to broaden them, to challenge them. Using Laurillard's distinction of everyday and academic knowledge, everyday knowledge should be just-in-time; academic knowledge is just-to-challenge, just-to-open, just-to-blow us out of our own ways of thinking. To criticise formal education for adopting a 'just-in-case' approach to learning is simply nonsense. To further assert that finding information is "the defining characteristic of learning" is very alarming, because it is actually 'knowing it' that helps you to develop a mental filter and include the information in your personal mental framework. Brighouse (pp.23-24) puts it plainly:
the critical thinking skills involved in autonomy can neither be developed nor exercised without the ease of access to a considerable amount of information which is provided only by having learned and internalized it… the idea that [students] might develop the more complex skills of reasoning about information without having a good deal of it instantly available is silly.

So, a Google search is more powerful than an educated mind? What if (as Jeanneney suggests) the question were not, "What is the capital of Venezuela?" but rather "Does democratization favour equality?" Here, it is the ability to evaluate and not merely find knowledge that becomes 'definitional' of having truly learned.

My criticism of Ally's phrase is that it reveals a deficit perspective of formal education, and seems to confuse the advantages of informal learning with formal learning. For Traxler the issue is epistemological, and a likely confusion between what it means to train and what it means to educate (Rosenberg, to whom the contrast between 'just-in-case', 'just-in-time', 'just enough' and 'just for me' is attributed, is involved in e-learning for training purposes). Traxler does acknowledge that a good case can be made for the use of mobile devices in incumbent formal education however his use of the term 'impurist' to describe this is somewhat loaded.

Finally, Traxler (2009, p.10) describes m-learning as "essentially personal, contextual, and situated". The fundamental error here, I think, is that Traxler has mistaken potential attributes for m-learning as essential. There is an unfortunate idealism in place here, as if Traxler is correct any use of a mobile device in educational contexts that is directed, abstract and theoretical cannot be 'real' m-learning. Far from being a pedagogical option, then, m-learning rather becomes a revolutionary slogan.

To finish, I would like to offer a set of theses to to with higher education:
  • Formal education seeks to open minds, rather than fill them; however opening cannot be separated from filling, nor vice-versa.
  • Formal education does not stop or hinder informal learning.
  • Formal education aims to orientate academic apprentices into an ongoing academic conversation; it does not claim to be the conversation itself.
  • Formal education seeks to add value through: a) its structuring of knowledge, and b) its insistence that students participate in exercises that force reflection and integration of knowledge.
  • Formal education is a deliberately tiered process, gradually immersing academic apprentices in a critical, co-dependent and questioning epistemology. The further the apprentice travels, the clearer the value of the tier becomes to them.
I welcome critique on the bulleted suggestions above. When I think about e-learning, I consider how these aims of formal education can be furthered. It wearies (and worries) me to see formal education, whether directly or indirectly, criticised on the basis that:
  • it is focused on filling minds with irrelevant nonsense;
  • it is concerned with memorising facts;
  • it is locked into an outdated model of objectives and assessment;
  • it considers itself a monopoly on learning;
  • or that it is a waste of money and time and a barrier to more natural informal and networked learning.
By all means let's critique formal education, but let's do so fairly and from a perspective of appreciative inquiry.