Sunday, November 29, 2009

4.3.2: Enhancing online social connectedness

The latest issue of Distance Education (30, 3) once again contains some excellent articles. The first, "Theoretical foundations for enhancing social connectedness in online learning environments" by Slagter von Tryon & Bishop, is a valuable (if not lengthy!) piece on improving social presence in online discourse.

The article underscores the importance of making a good first impression, as all exchanges with others communicate something about the author's nature and competance and help determine the social pecking order of the group. Using a Delphi methodology, the authors recommend the following to improve social presence:
  • Providing opportunity for students to develop a group structure, through high quantity and quality social interaction.
  • Providing comprehensive technical support.
  • Providing persistent follow-up, particularly so that students are paced in their discourse so that the exchange does not become isolating and is socially consistent.
The authors proceed to develop a 'social connectedness design framework' that considers the three elements required for social interaction (status assessments, norm development and role differentiation) across the three recommendations coming from their Delphi results (increased interactions, comprehensive technical support, and persistent follow-up). The bottom line is that students need opportunities to 'be' themselves in the context of technical support and online exercises that draw attention to the fact that they are individuals within a common community.

While 'social presence' is not new and is now understood reasonably well, the article does provide an important focus on what continues to be a central aspect of online discourse.

5.3.5: Special edition of ALT-J; Mobile finding its place

The latest ALT-J (17, 3 November 2009) is a special issue on Mobile and contextual learning, edited by Agnes Kukulska-Hume and Mike Sharples. It is good to see the concepts of 'mobile-learning' and 'contextual-learning' side by side.

The articles have much in common; it seems now that m-learning has found its niche:
...the unique characteristics of mobile learning... include orchestrating shared learning with personal devices across formal and informal settings, providing immediately useful information, offering timely revision and reflection, connecting real and virtual locations, and enriching field trips and cultural visits (p.159, editorial).
None of the case studies in the issue are about courses making sole use of mobile technologies, and one even makes use of portable DVD players.

The first paper, "Towards an understanding of the virtual context in mobile learning" by Cornelius & Marston, introduces the concept of 'disruption' from the physical world by mobile devices, taking learners from a physical to a virtual context. The simulation described in the article is not immediately transferable to all sorts of courses, but the underlying concept raised (the potential for 'disruption') is a very interesting one.

The case study "Situated learning in the mobile age: mobile devices on a field trip to the sea" by Pfeiffer et al shows how mobile DVD players increased student performance on fish species knowledge, a novel (in my reading) approach to mobile technologies which again highlights the diversity beneath the 'm-learning' banner. In the case study, learning was found to be more 'efficient' and more effective through the use of DVD media on location. However the use of video over still graphics did not increase student outcomes to any significant degree.

One interesting finding in the paper, "How can mobile SMS communication support and enhance a first year undergraduate learning environment?" by Jones et al is that students tend to use their mobile phones for basic SMS and voice calls - even if their mobile has addiitonal features such as camera, Bluetooth, calendars etc built-in. the case study itself focues on the use of targeted SMS messages reminding students of upcoming deadlines and for course notices. Students valued these notices, whcih often served as gentle prods for them to continue with their course-related tasks. While the autors caution that they cannot prove any causality, student engagement with the course seemed to improve. The authors also caution that while some found the texts beneficial, others found them 'disruptive', with the interpretation of texts and the 160 character limitation proving additionally problematic. While the authors maintain their approach is a beneficial one, I can't help personally thinking that it may have been more trouble than it was worth based on the actual outcomes... still, the authors do suggest that the approach could be of real benefit to 'vulnerable' students getting to grips with the demands of tertiary study. Samples of actual texts confirm that the level of interaction was concerned with matter sof definition and recall.

The study by Sutton-Brady et al, "The value of using short-format podcasts to enhance learning and teaching", confirms that most students making use of podcasts listen to them through their home computers, rather than on mobile devices. The authors findings also suggest that short, assessment-relevant podcasts ("short-term, supplementary") are those that prove most useful. The real value of podcasts, then, may lie in their supplemental use with lectures, rather than being recordings of lectures.

Curiously, two of the studies note that their findings run counter to Prensky's notion of digital immigrants and digital natives - again underscoring the value of primary research findings over 'common sense' speculation!

The issue is a vaulable one for the ongoing research into m-learning, which seems to get ever broader but not much deeper in terms of its overall impact.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

1.4.1: Growth of online learning

A report linked to from the Becta web site suggests that the number of US post-secondary stduents studying online will double in the next five years. The report, released by Ambient Insight (overview here) considers the growth of blended and online learning (note the relatively insignificant 'all online' category in comparison).

When you consider the potential benefits of online access to resources and class discussions, the growth rate is relaly not surprising. What is hidden in the statistics (perhaps it might be available in the full $US4.9k report?) is any indication as to how blended the mix of the courses will be. Here at Laidlaw College, all of our courses (with the exception of one particular programme) might be considered 'blended' because all provide online course areas and expect students to interact with them (even if just to upload and receive back assignments). We are steadily improving resource availability and online discussion use, but already we can be considered 'blended' - and that on a shoestring budget!
  • Moodle (open source, no license cost), externally hosted (reduced infrastructure cost).
  • Google education services (free, no infrastructure cost - and we were the first in New Zealand to roll it out institutionally).
  • Turnitin integration (minimal annual license fee, fully integrated with Moodle, and no administrative overhead).
  • Mahara (open source, no license cost), externally hosted (reduced infrastructure cost).
  • Adobe Connect Pro (commercial, hosted internally).
Not a bad selection of applications... with smooth, highly integrated administrative systems we do pretty well!

5.3.3: ePortfolio case studies from JISC

The JISC has released two final reports on ePortfolio use in the UK HE sector. the cases are diverse in many ways; scale of implementation, platform, course type. The reports (one looking at eassessment, the other at case studies) are a wealth of good practice, revealing the maturity of activity now underway.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

5.1.2, 3.4.2: Open Education Resources

I deliberately left Open Education Resources out of the E-Primer series, as there still seems substantial work to be done for them to go beyond being a 'good theory' and something 'inevitable' into something with a track record. OER has a host of dedicated adherents, and it seems they are close to achieving a form of critical mass and proof of concept. OERs have been of interest to me since Stephen Downes' classic paper on learning objects in 2001(Learning objects: Resources for distance education worldwide). It seemed a little like wishful thinking, but it had a definite attraction to it; at the time I was reading about (and practising) instructional design, and the barriers to a learning object economy at the practical level seemed more significant than some were letting on. Next in my journey was David Wiley's excellent differentiation (DOC) between 'Lego' and 'atoms'. Other pre-2003 works are linked to from here.

What put me off including them in the E-Primer series was the book by Littlejohn (2004): Reusing online resources, which, to my knowledge, remains an important read in the area. The book highlights the potential and (considerable) challenges the development, storage and re-use of learning objects face (and, again to my knowledge, continue to face). Issues of granularity, searchability, suitability, licensing and the establishment of a 'learning object 'economy' for reimbursing authors seem to remain as challenges (the issues have not seemed to have changed in the intervening years based on Conole & Oliver's (2007) Contemporary perspectives in e-learning research. My main personal objection beyond those listed is the potential loss of meta-narrative; what story ties the little bits together (related to granularity)? Further, thus far OER repositories have fallen well short of their ideals.

What prompts this post is the work being done by Wikieducator (see their OER Handbook for educators) and the recent (Vol.10, No.5) issue of IRRODL, a special feature on open access. I am yet to read it (my current research lies elsewhere), but it is encouraging to read in the editorial (PDF) these words from David Wiley and John Hilton III:
Overall, this special issue presents an excellent discussion of open education issues ranging from useful descriptions of successful projects to empirical data about user attitudes to thoughtful criticisms of present work. These criticisms are particularly valuable because so much of the extant literature about open education is almost uniformly positive in tone. We hope this special issue will help to begin a more balanced discourse about the benefits and very real challenges of open education.
It is encouraging to see some primary research being performed; the account of open textbook creation, an honest appraisal of sustainability,  and the results of a survey looking at incentives and disincentives for use (showing that the classic benefits and caveats I mentioned above still exist). On the theoretical side is one by the editors (Openness, dynamic specialization, and the disaggregated future of higher education) suggesting that "every institution must begin addressing openness as a core organizational value if it desires to both remain relevant to its learners and to contribute to the positive advancement of the field of higher education"), and another proposing peer-recognition over formal accreditation.

One of the ironies in is the tension between OERs replacing current formal education and OERs promoting and serving formal education; for OERs to be sustainable, it seems they may need to be supported on the scale only made possible within formal settings (see the Friesen article). I still view OER as a work in progress, with significant barriers to overcome; there is much enthusiasm for it. However, I also know that enthusiasm will only get a great idea so far. For OER to truly come to fruition it requires a critical mass and an inevitability in terms of institutional shift. I'm not (yet) convinced that either of these are imminent. Using OERs doesn't take the 'work' out of education design!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

5.1: The narrowing of horizons?

A report released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project entitled "Social Isolation and New Technology" (PDF) challenges the suggestion that people are becoming more isolated because of the Internet and mobile technologies. Using 'discussion networks' as the measure, it seems that personal circles are actually widening and actually become "more diverse social networks". That said, the research does confirm that 'core discussion networks' (number of confidants, or poeple with whom important issues can be discussed) have declined.

A well-researched report, well worth an in-depth treatment which I cannot give it at the moment!