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One of the most enjoyable and inspiring books I have read this year has been Sir Ken Robinson's "Out of our Minds"  and my ref...

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The e word.

I chose to look at enhancement and watched the video about xMOOC models. There are several viewpoints shown in the clip but the main focus is on the Stamford experience of Udacity co founder Sebastian Thrun and his stated aim was to democratise access to learning arising from his belief that "education is a basic human right". Whilst I fully support this premise (who wouldn't ?) I felt that some of the statements made rather simplified the success of this model and at times tried to compare it to a way of teaching that would be recognised by most teachers as failing learners . Traditional teaching was presented as students sitting in ranks, not allowed to talk to each other, lecturers transmitting knowledge from the front - surely these are clichés and any institution who maintains them is already on the road to obsolescence? Sadly in HE old habits (and business plans) die hard.

The elements of the MOOC model applicable in my context:
(I prefer cMooc to xMooc personally, as I see the latter more as an institutional marketing model to support business as usual) were:

  • online delivery makes learning more accessible especially to those unable to take time away from work/life in order to study
  • greater availability of content for replay/review
  • more problem based learning, explanations afterwards, "flipped" delivery
  • increased emphasis on interaction, making best use of technology, use of quiz 
  • more economical, reach more students, make teaching a first class discipline again
  • education a lifelong issue - more relevant to modern world, flexible and continuous 
Of course all these things also apply to good blended learning. The question here is how does one scale up the tutor time in order to deliver a personalised experience to thousands of participants? It would seem from the participants interviewed that they expected to get that interaction from each other. Possibly accepted as a trade off for not having to pay to learn? One interviewee commented that we "underestimate how powerful interaction can be online". I believe that to be the case having experienced several cMoocs now since 2011. If you invest the time in online learning, getting to know your fellow learners, if the course is aligned with your personal learning needs you can indeed make useful and productive connections which can foster deep learning. Thrun's experience must be quite chilling for the established order, as it questions whether the "best" universities really select the best potential graduates, his online students outperformed those turning up on campus according to his analysis. So as I have long suspected, there is much wasted potential as a result of our industrial schooling model. 

  • problems anticipated
the business model: as soon as money is exchanged for learning a set of expectations arise which have to be met. Thrun's model implies that business as usual is required in order to fund this open free course model. Clearly new costing models would have to be established, I am sure the technology used isn't free and I guess he also expects payment for his work? This is at the heart of the issue and we need some suggestions more creative than simply trying to sell videos of experts in order to raise funds and draw attention to the institution. 

Ultimately, what is judged by learners to be "enhanced" learning opportunities will depend upon their experience of learning, not simply the content they have had access to. Interaction lies at the heart of that. Quality has never really been about institutional reputation, it is more personal than that.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Conducting a VLE review

A post for #octel week 5 based on reviewing Julie Voce's VLE review presentation. 

Julie's detailed and clear project report captured though audio and slides is extremely clear and well articulated. The complexity of the task is obvious, this was a large scale review and re planning of online provision for the teaching in a multi-site institution. I can fully appreciate the steps that were taken, there is a clear logic to the process and, despite some pain along the way the outcome was largely successful. I am very interested in the "failures" and "lessons learnt" slides as they hold useful messages for reflection.

Our language learning online environment Languages@Warwick was created three years ago to meet the needs of a small (by comparison) group of about 3,700 users engaged in a very specific activity: blended language learning. It was informed by my research into language teaching methodologies and learner requirements and developed through a piloting process with our teachers and learners. The aim was provide technologies that could facilitate best practice on language teaching and support innovative teaching. So the scale of our project was different. However, I do wonder if there is something else that can be learnt from our experience that may help those looking to implement institution wide VLE provision. Some of the details are presented in more detail on my CMALT e-portfolio. 

  • Who were your stakeholders?
our learners (from across all degree programmes), our teaching staff, our institutional managers, our IT staff. 

  • What resources were used?
our teaching staff (esp. those already using technology for teaching), our internal finance (income generating unit), an additional technical staff member recruited to help implement the project, external moodle hosting partner, technology advice using channels such as Jisc, ALT and listserves with other language centre contacts. 

  • How clear/achievable was the project plan?
  • What fallback position, if any, did you build into your plan in the event of full or partial project failure?
Given the narrow nature of the brief and the fact that existing online arrangements were not conducive to the best use of our resources (human or financial) the project plan was very clear and was monitored and reported on at regular intervals. It was also flexible and shaped by our stakeholders. The fallback position was to rely on institutional development which would have had a significant impact on our ability to compete for students so failure was not really an option!

  • What methods did you use to evaluate your project?
We use both quantitative and qualitative data on an annual basis to review our project implementation. This is then shared with stakeholders in a variety of ways including papers/presentations to conferences, presentations at internal showcase events, and reports and documentation to managers. 

  • How did you measure project success?
Success criteria include:
-the amount of engagement from our user base through the Languages@Warwick VLE (course resource counts, usage patterns, student feedback)
-the capacity for innovative language teaching (activity in research for Computer Mediated Communication, virtual exchanges)
-the developing digital skill set of our teaching staff
-addressing through suitable technical choices the relative advantage of digital teaching so that we maximise the engagement for all stakeholders.

  • Did you celebrate your success and did this encourage further developments?
Celebrating success was a key part of the strategy adopted. From the pilot stage on, we encouraged tutors to share their experienced with their teams and the Centre. We used a youtube channel and a twitter feed to disseminate successes and these were aggregated back in to a core" Using moodle for language teaching" course to which all users were subscribed. 

As Julie identifies from her experience and we certainly found in ours, even when you plan everything meticulously and execute with as much support as can be mustered there are still some major barriers that can emerge during such projects that can really take a toll on those charged with implementing them.

Communication: never as simple as it seems. As a language educator I was aware of the complexities of human communication, the close connection between communication and power dynamics. Too often we interpret the need to communicate effectively as simply providing a "push channel" - a space through which we broadcast decisions and information. This ignores the importance of "pull" communication channels, the means for interested parties to get the information that is relevant to them, giving them control and helping to enlist participation. If people do not wish to engage with your message you have to rely on hierarchical support which may or may not be there. If others are suspicious of the project agenda and feel it may effect their way of working, again there is a good deal of advanced communication to do! Our project was clearly aligned with our institutional Senior management vision and yet that was not enough to make the path to realisation smooth. Finding out what others need and listening to them is importantly and I think this was rightly prioritised in Julie's project even if it caused the time frame to slip. We need to remember we are all colleagues working together for an over aching aim and as such everyone is entitled to their opinion, concerns and input. Any project plan or gant chart that fails to take into account the complexities of implementing change in an institutional context ignores the vital ingredient - people. Great project management qualities include humility, patience and compassion as well as the steely determination to make things happen Such qualities ensure the project will not just succeed but it will last because others will want to help you make it so. 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Authenticity in language learning

What does authentic mean in language learning terms? Back in the 1980s when I was newly qualified, authentic was one of our buzz words. The rise in importance of communicative language teaching included a focus on incorporating "real" language sources taken from French newspapers and the like. These would be more recent than our ageing course books with their carefully chosen screened language, selected to highlight the grammar we had to teach. All very worthy really, and it meant frequent trips to France to bring back useful authentc resources - Carrefour fliers, tickets, fiches. Probably seems crazy now that "autheticity" lies a mouseclick or finger swipe away!

Jump forward 30 years and the notion of authenticity needs to come under scrutiny again. For two reasons:

  • how we deal with/expose learners to "authentic" language use on social media
  • how we devise activities for learning and assessment for learners use of language

Here's an example of the first:

A French teacher uses twitter for advice. He demonstrates in a very real, conversational way (unknown to him) how useful the French word "truc" (thingy) can be whilst using some fairly complex constructions (en, ne..que). This is the kind of authentic language use that my students can learn from, alongside a discussion  about register (appropriate language in different situations). Yet students are rarely using twitter to see how the language they are learning is used by native speakers. If they were they would see that, just like in English, it is full of typos too!

On the second point, authenticity (by which I mean real world) in language teaching offers an opportunity to engage learners in real experiences. Far more real thanks to new technologies than I could manage in the 80's. We use shopping websites to compare and choose provisions for a picnic, the ANPE site to find out about skills necessary for jobs in France, connect directly with French students to find out more about their hobbies and interests. (We could connect with those even further afield without difficulty too). So this tweet jumped out at me:

Given just how much more authentic - lifelike - we can be in 2014, why are our tasks and our assessments still paper based versions of those we used in the 1980's? The current generation of young people have found us out, they want real world skills and preparation for a future we don't even understand. I feel an authenticity crisis is at large, we are rapidly becoming irrelevant. Language study becoming the preserve of a small elite who wish to work amongst the privileged few.

Here is my last hope.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Implementing e-portfolio assessment.

I have written extensively about the e-portfolio project for language learning which I introduced 3 year's ago so please forgive me for the use of the most wonderful of affordances we have in digital reality - hyperlinks - in order to offer greater detail to those who may be interested to look into them. 

This blog post is very deliberately big picture, and I think the reason for that will soon become obvious. Language learning is a long term undertaking if you wish to get to a reasonable level of mastery. The outcomes of a course are likely to be simply way stages on a longer journey, summative assessments are just snapshots of your proficiency at a point in time. Their predictive validity of these will depend on many factors (course design, assessment design, appropriacy of language study to the context of usage to name but a few). Even those of us who have studied languages for many years generally consider ourselves language learners rather than experts, the beauty and challenge of getting to grips with a second (or additional) language is that you have to apply your skills to keep up with a constantly changing body of usage. Language constantly evolves, it is a complex expression of the human mind and has to reflect the realities of the human context. As fast as course books and teaching resources are published, the language and culture moves on. The language teacher has a responsibility to acculturate the learner to the reality of this domain, making them aware of effective learning strategies and coping mechanisms. After all, you can hardly stop a native speaker and tell them to only use the language covered up to p35 of your course book when they interact with you, even if the content of your final exam may be more predictable! 
Given that this engagement with the learning process, which can be a transformative one, is a vital part of the skill set acquired during good teaching, it needs to be recognised, embedded, recognised and rewarded alongside the summative achievement of your final "level" at the end of a course. The e-portfolio project was based on literature available through JISC's e-portfolio project  and a narrative creation informed by Helen Barrett's insights into the value of e-portfolios for deep learning.  Documentation sharing the detail is available here, short summaries of the technologies and process used were recently published by ALT and Mahara. 

We use the e-portfolio to force learners to reflect on their learning approaches, make their processes explicit, analyse and reflect upon them. Ultimately the learner has to take ownership of their part of the learning process. This is sometimes uncomfortable, we would all prefer to blame someone/something else for a lack of progress. Initial reactions can be quite negative, tutors and learners have to be shown the value of this approach. We emphasise the importance of connecting to peers whether you are a student or a tutor, supporting each other. The final artefact is an individual narrative of your learning journey and it provides really useful insights from students to their tutors, useful feed forward for our learning design. Ironically, embedding reward for reflection on the minutiae of the individual's learning has helped our learners discover more about themselves and see the bigger picture. It has also helped to equip them for the reality of using and extending their learning in the future, beyond the immediate goal of the final summative course exam. Should the language they have acquired turn out to be not that which they need in subsequent employment, they have the tools to embark on learning another language. They will also be equipped as effective, self regulating learners who can adapt to a new challenge. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Opening doors

There is no open unless there's closed, so I will start my reflection on openness with some thoughts about the locks that exist and can impede access to learning opportunities. 

If you have children you will have no doubt at times ensured that some "learning opportunities" presented by power tools, scissors, staircases were locked away, only accessible when and how you judged suitable. Such judgements are part of parental responsibility (although many would say that we have become over protective at times and limit experiences that were more freely available in times gone by). I see a parallel here with educators wishing to control access to resources to ensure their learners are not overwhelmed or faced with content that may confuse. This is a difficult balance to get right, especially in an age where access to content (irrespective of its quality) has never been more open. Each of us is a filter and maybe we should take a more active part in curating resources and encouraging the development of learner's critical and evaluative skills to empower their selection of resources. Timeliness is of course important, but the learner may be best equipped to decide on a suitable time to access a resource. Failing to acknowledge this creates dependant learners who assume that only experts can lead their learning. Surely we need to support learner autonomy and a more open discourse around learning in order to prepare for an uncertain future. 

Another reason for closing doors is that which signals ownership. "My room", "my office" closed spaces delineating roles, relationships and the observation of personal space. Again, this is not always a bad thing (my son is responsible for the state of his room, I am glad I can close the door on that!) but we have to acknowledge the reasons behind these social conventions and the possible impact of perhaps unintended consequences. Just today, following up on a paper that was part of a US conference and appears from the abstract to be relevant to my research I was frustrated to find that none of my "keys" fit the lock to access it. The link demanded payment for access and my various memberships did not enable me to read the work. Personally I prefer to publish through open channels as I value being part of a wide community of practitioners, learning from each other. 
Creative commons licencing allows me to claim my authorship, acknowledging my part in the process of contributing to a wider knowledge gathering society whilst making my preferences for usage clear. I hear more academics agreeing that openness is a principle they value.

Finally let's think about open source development and commercial providers. It has become rather "in" to recommend open source technologies over commercial vendors. I use both and have had good and bad experiences which lead me to the conclusion that "open source" does not always equate to better, more ethical, more sustainable solutions for learning technology. I use tools drawn from both sectors based on their suitability for purpose. My overriding concern is to avoid "lock in" which leaves users hostages to fortune and to establish that technology providers have an ethical way of working that ensures that my learners get a good user experience. I check out LTI compliance in order to keep the doors open. In some cases the best tool for the job requires significant financial investment in research and development that can only be achieved if the provider has access to sufficient resource. Rules of openness related to the management of digital resources are still evolving though. As part of Mozilla's webmaker course last year I created some remixes using their Popcorn maker, it was disappointing to see that French video content had been blocked when, as a language teacher, I was easily covered by "reasonable use" allowances.

So to sum up, open vs closed are not in fact simple opposites, it is much more complex than that. Far from being an open and shut case, we must continue to strive towards operationalising openness in ways that are:

  • appropriate
  • understandable
  • facilitating
  • fair