Bayne, S., Gallagher, M. S., & Lamb, J. (2014) Reflections

Being back ‘at’ university over the last seven weeks, after so long outside of more formal education has been a challenging, but invigorating experience. This week we’ve been building on previous themes around online environments, community and spaces to think about our experiences as distance education students, and what it means for us to be ‘at’ university.

Bayne, Gallagher and Lamb’s paper is a great resource as it dissects the views of previous MSc students on this very course – so fantastic material for IDEL and this topic!

Some key points I took from the paper:

  • Distance education is often theorised through the lens of on-campus education. There are inherent issues and limitations with this. “The distancing of education makes possible new spatial practices, new patterns of movement and ‘new proximities’.”
  • Traditional perspectives from social science on spaces are not adequate to look at the ‘hosts, guests, buildings, objects, and machines’ at play in the topology of courses such as this – the ‘new mobilities paradigm’.
  • The authors used 4 kinds of proposed social spaces to consider social and mobility aspects of distance learning – regional, network, fluid and fire. These are intertwined and occur simultaneously, they are not mutually exclusive.
  • The physical campus is important to distance students, but in varying ways to different students.
  • Some students have an emotional/sentimental/nostalgic connection with the physical location  – others very little.
  • Absence is as important as presence in looking at the relationship between university and student (and can be overlooked if just viewing through ‘on-campus’ perspective).
  • The campus can be fluid and transient – a “cognitive (piece of)… real estate”.
  • There may need to be ongoing calibration of what it means to study ‘at’ a university in light of this, for all stakeholders including tutors, administrators, academic leads and students themselves.

This paper came at a good time – I’d already been wrestling in my head what it meant to be studying at the University of Edinburgh. I certainly share similar thoughts to some of the students who were interviewed as part of the research, in particular, Matthew Gillon’s quote that:

“In a strange way, I didn’t feel that I wasn’t in Edinburgh.”

This double negative is important. I don’t feel like I’m in Edinburgh (as I’m not), but I don’t feel as if I’m not in Edinburgh – there’s an important distinction here.

Erik Credle’s perspectives also strike a chord:

“I feel a sense of belonging to the University, but at the same time I dont feel that I am actually part of the University.”

I certainly feel a sense of belonging to the course and the team behind it, my fellow students, but perhaps differently to Erik I don’t feel a real connection with the university. At present, I feel more of an affinity and connection with the city than the university, which feels like a contradiction in terms. I think this may be the way I am viewing the university, as a physical place.

Having strong interactions with the course and its various participants creates the bond with the course. I think having visited Edinburgh before, and being able to visualise/feel/experience the environment, this is an important contributor.

I can’t help but feel having never visited the university campus this has a detrimental impact on my relationship with the university, but in any case, I don’t think this an important factor for me. The university is almost more important pre-course, when gauging the likely rigour and quality gone into creating and curating the learning experience. I think I’ll need more time to let this percolate and consider fully!

Reviewing this paper in light of recent readings, I again spotted some recurring themes:

  • The course repeatedly questions the approaches used in current discourse within digital education. Like Friesen questions the instrumentalist and essentialist approaches to technology (and the blind spots this causes), in this paper this is echoed in the approach taken to viewing ‘non-campus education’. These critical approaches can only be a good thing, and is at the very core of good scientific practice!
  • Rather than seeing things as separate strands (e.g. Friesen’s view on essentialism and instrumentalism), there is an ongoing challenge to view things as symbiotic and intertwined (with good reasons why!). In here we see this approach taken to the spatial topologies discussed.
  • Again there are issues with terminology and the implications of the choices made on this. Like Bayne argued the weaknesses with the phrase ‘Technology-Enhanced Learning’, here we see a similar argument around ‘Distance Learning’. These could be seen as ‘growing pains’ with the increasing introduction and usage of technology, but important to be discussed and addressed.

Before reading the paper, and the comments from alumni as part of this, it was useful to consider the questions posed.

My own personal view of arriving at the University of Edinburgh was the rather overwhelming contact points and breadth of information sent to me by email! It didn’t feel like a smooth experience, but in retrospect, I think this was a key aspect of realising that I’m studying at university again. With all the different departments and administrative functions in contact, you get a sense of the size and scale of studying at an institution, and I think this was an important realisation. And I’m not sure of the importance of this yet, but receiving the invoice and paying the course fees also had an effect, I’m still trying to distill what this was! All these different touch-points contribute to processing and establishing the experience, and without this, I may have taken a different approach (or level of focus?) to the course. As a contrast, you don’t get this with a MOOC for example (emails on matriculation, information on freshers week), and this inevitably adds to the unconscious feeling of uni ‘-lite’. As someone who is involved in positioning and marketing of products, this really stood out.

On reflection, I think twitter has been an essential tool for me to get a wider understanding of the University of Edinburgh. Although I’ve not actively engaged with them, it’s interesting that I feel I have a connection with two of the writers of the paper, Sian Bayne and Michael Gallacher. I see what they are discussing, what peaks their interest, who they, in turn, engage with. It helps position them as thought leaders who are in active debate and makes the course feel even more ‘alive’ and ever-evolving. I think it’s interesting that Twitter’s not been a central part of the course, yet without this, I feel the wider experience would have been poorer.

Finally, I absolutely loved the concept of a ‘digital postcard’. Wow, what a fantastic idea. Naturally, the first thought is “why not just use a video, that’d capture audio?”, but video forces you to go along with the pre-set pace and narrative, rather than allowing the viewer to explore and digest at their own speed. When tool we use heavily in my business is H5P. It’s a WordPress plug-in, used to add interactivity to media using HTML5 (think of it as being a poor person’s Thinglink). Continuing the experimentation, here’s my own digital postcard from my place of study.

(Caveat – my desk isn’t usually this untidy. It’s been a crazy week, but all the junk adds to the experience!).

References:

Online environments and Minecraft – first thoughts

(Please note this has been written before I’ve given Minecraft a more than a initial trial. It’s just intended to capture some early ramblings on this).

Although I’d never consider myself a gamer, on reflection my experiences in this area have always involved ‘big spaces’. This goes way back to early ‘point and click’ adventures such as Simon the Sorcerer, which although limited in scope did allow you to travel round and explore the world that had been created. Then it was Tony Hawks in the early 2000s. Even though you had a skateboard strapped to your feet you could still venture round. Pre-children, there was a time when I did binge the Assassin’s Creed games. I loved these – I think it was the open world feel combined with history that gave a real sense of immersion.

However I’ve never played these online, collaboratively with others. I think this is largely down to:

  • A lack of a powerful computer to run these
  • A fast-enough broadband connection
  • On the odd time I’ve given it a go, found that the level of ability of those already in the ‘world’ so ridiculously high that when involved in a ‘skirmish’, I’ve been killed before I even realise I’m playing it.

(I am aware using the term ‘play’ may not be the right choice. I think it infantilises activity in these environments, as it can be so much more than simply play. But for the want of a better phrase, I’ve used this at times in this blog).

This does make me think about some of the real world barriers that prevent access to online spaces. In my own personal experience, it’s largely come down to the set-up cost, or finances to be blunt. When I have tried it, I’ve struggled to find that way in – the learning curve was so steep it was disheartening.

I realise Minecraft is somewhat the antithesis of all three points, in that it a) is specifically designed to work on as many devices as possible, and b) it’s geared around creation and collaboration, rather than competition. Perhaps that’s where it’s success lies.

I have certainly been aware of the popularity of the Minecraft, although until now never given it a go. My 7 year old nephew is hooked on it (I’ve never been able to ask him about it as he speaks Dutch, and I don’t!), and I was aware of the masses of youtube videos. It seems to be able to capture that elusive sweetspot that if companies could identify and articulate, they’d all be millionaires. I am also aware of the popularity amongst autistic children, as a way of providing a environment for them to explore and socialise in, that seems to be a good fit for their condition. I’ve learnt that it’s opened up communication between these children and their parents, and given them a common metaphor to open up dialogue.

It’s interesting to think what is defined as social, and cultural views on what’s make a social setting. The pub or cafe may be seen as the perfect social enabler for some, and terrifying for others. With the development and increased adoption of these online spaces (and social media is included in this), it’s could be redefining what it means to be social.

Moving away from ‘games’, and more towards online environments, I do recall the intrigue around second life, perhaps around 2005-6. There was a huge amount of hype around the time with commercial companies buying virtual real estate. I think it was seen as the next dotcom boom, with everyone so keen to get on board and speculate on the off-chance it would become a success.

My initial thoughts are that even if it’s fairly loose, and changes over time, an online environment needs to have a purpose. Minecraft is to build, to explore. Second life didn’t have this hook, by its very description it’s simply a virtual version of ‘this life’, so perhaps fell foul of some of the issues we have in the real world. Who wants to experience them twice?!

I’ve also been thinking about augmented reality, and where this fits in. Is this an online environment, or is it simply a different lens on our current world? For something like Pokemon go, I’d be tempted to lean towards the former, as the landscape was a backdrop for the game. But with discussions around activity happening between friends as much offline as online, is the term ‘online environments’ too specific? Do we need a new term to capture the developments in AR?

Now, best get cracking on with my build in minecraft…

Metaphorical concepts

So it seems that how we think, act and speak is influenced by the metaphorical choices we use to conceptualise ideas. Another eye-opener in week 6, this time from Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). As someone who resorts to metaphors quite often in language (in my on-going battle to articulate myself with clarity), it was interesting to read that this is more than just language – indeed the very metaphors we choose can influence how we think.

Continuing the spirit of experimentation, I pulled together a video of some of themes in biteable:

In traditional form though, here are some bullets for my own reference:

  • Metaphorical concepts are more than ‘skin deep’. We are able to articulate concepts metaphorically because we conceive of things metaphorically, then act metaphorically.
  • Structural metaphors – where one concept is metaphorically structured in terms of another. E.g. Time is money.
  • Metaphorical concepts may be only relevant to certain cultures
  • Metaphorical concepts may be interrelated, to create a metaphorical system
  • Metaphorical concepts are only partially structured. Time (the target domain) is analogous with money (the source domain), but time isn’t money. Therefore this can hide and limit the understanding of the target domain.
  • Orientational metaphors – organises a whole system of concepts with respect to one another. Spatial in that refer to our being in a physical environment. E.g. I’m feeling down.
  • Metaphorical systems provide an overarching theme to capture many metaphorical concepts, e.g. Happy is ‘up’.

I see the links in this paper with Bayne (2015), in terms of how choice of language, as innocuous as it may seem, can have wider repercussions if not chosen well, or at least without a critique of why the choices have been made.

Having done some further reading around this, I’ve come across Whorf’s theory of language, which perhaps looks at this from a different angle – that the choice of language itself shape how their speakers perceive and conceptualize the world.

In a forum thread earlier in the course, Clara O’Shea talks about mycorrhiza, and the symbiotic association this represents. This seems to be a pervading theme across the course, whether it be related to technology and teacher, metaphor and language, learning and education, teacher and student, instrumentalism and essentialism. There is a rich and intertwined dynamic going on throughout these topics, and it seems clarity is lost when the factors are treated as distinct individuals, rather than acknowledging the interplay between the two.

In terms of how metaphorical concepts apply to the digital environments, this is going to be interesting to explore on the forums with the rest of the guys. With regards to the idea of learning I can already see concepts such as nature, or growth coming through e.g. “it gave me the seed of an idea that grew”, and perhaps this is lost at times with digital, where the viewpoint (in some circles) may be to revolutionise, rather than evolve?

References:

  • Bayne, S. (2015). What’s the matter with ‘technology-enhanced learning’? Learning, Media and Technology, 40(1), 5-20, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2014.915851
  • Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M.(1980) Metaphors We Live By. (London, University of Chicago Press). Chapters 1-4. pp3-21

Cousin, G. (2005) musings

Week 6 of IDEL and I think we’re moving into more familiar territory. Although digital environments is a very broad term, and Minecraft is still very much an unknown, we’ve begun to start using terms such as VLE, which is a bit closer to home.

Cousin, G. (2005) has been a really interesting read, and a great way to kick things off. I’m quite surprised how relevant many of themes still are, given its relative age (12 years) and all that has changed since.

It seems the author had a remarkable amount of foresight too, for example:

“technologies are constitutive of our identities”.

Given it was 2005 at time of writing – when it could be argued social media was very much a novelty – little could she have known how our identities these days are as much online as offline.

There were some key themes that I picked out:

  • She argues that the instrumentalist viewpoint is widespread at the time that this was written. This concurs with Friesen’s observations (Friesen, N. (2013) that use of technology is been viewed as plugging into the existing pedagogy.
  • Cousin argues that pedagogy has always been intertwined with technology, and that the two are “mutually determining”.
  • Technology should not be viewed as inert or separate from technology. Terms like ‘toolbox’ add to this. She argues that “different media demand different levels and forms of engagement or our senses and social relations”.
  • Power or control is a contributor to the positioning of technology as an enhancement. Again this keeps on coming up in the readings, the most relevant here being Selwyn, N. (2011).
  • She argues that VLEs tend to be skewed towards the simulation of the classroom, again this is referring to the instrumentalist approach.

The paper echoes previous readings in parts on the debate around the approach to technology within education. The resistance to the adoption of technology in education also seems to be still relevant.

It was Interesting to read the author’s observations that to avoid protestations within the teaching community, technology was being positioned as enhancing what is already good about education. This reminded me of a twitter thread recently, about how the notion ‘practice makes perfect’ is flawed should actually be repurposed as ‘practice makes permanent’. The sentiment being here that practice only reinforces something, it doesn’t change its nature. In the same way, technology could also be used to enhance bad teaching practice if the underlying pedagogy isn’t sound.

I can’t help but think that the argument that VLEs mirror a classroom approach still tends to hold true. But I’m not sure if this is entirely unexpected, particularly given some of the VLEs I’ve experienced and the story of their development. Again this refers back to earlier conversations we’ve had on the forums concerning the educational community’s influence in technology.

From my professional experience, many of the VLEs in the workplace have been brought over from more educational or academic backgrounds. We’re starting to see this change, with the advent of more resource-orientated frameworks (such as Fuse), and the development of tools such as xAPI which aim to acknowledge the learning that happens outside of formal training experiences. Perhaps these will feed back into the more academic VLEs, and improve them for the better.

(On a side note, given Biesta’s criticism of the ‘learnification’ of education, should in some cases the VLE be re-titled as the Virtual Education Environment 😉 ?)

I’d argue that with regards to terminology, work environments are more orientated towards ‘learning’ than ‘being educated’. Simple reason being that at work people want to access information and guidance to support them in doing something, usually right then and then. Given that, it’s less about a separate educator or teacher, the learner themselves are taking on aspects of the teaching role themselves by sourcing and validating (to some degree – this could be as little as being top of a search query) a piece of content. A slide on Nick Shackleton’s recent presentation at World of Learning summarises this quite nicely:

I suspect when we look at digital environments and spaces over next couple of weeks this is going to be particularly useful in the ‘day job’, and am looking forward to finding out more!

References:

  • Cousin, G. (2005). Learning from cyberspace. In R. Land & S. Bayne (Eds.), Education in Cyberspace. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Hamilton, E., and Friesen, N. (2013). Online education: a science and technology studies perspective. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 39(2), 1-21.
  • Selwyn, N. (2011), Education and Technology: key issues and debates. London: Continuum.
  • Biesta, G. (2012) Giving teaching back to education: responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice. 6(2), 35-49. journal article]

Communication channels within IDEL (so far…)

Using Canva, I’ve put some thoughts on each of the communication channels we’ve used so far on the IDEL course. While this is a departure from interpreting and discussing the recommended readings, I felt some consideration of this could have some useful bearings on my course development in the ‘day job’. Am looking forward to experimenting with other mediums (minecraft, virtual classrooms) in the upcoming weeks!

(As for Canva, great for small images (to be used on social media), but never again with infographic-style formats like this!)

Themes and terminology

In the spirit of IDEL, I thought it was about time to start experimenting on this blog with a few different online tools. I’ve pulled some of the recurring themes and new terminology (for me) that I’ve picked up during the course so far and pulled them into a wordcloud. It’s not hugely different from a list but the aesthetics are certainly more appealing!

Some quick thoughts on themes and terminology from weeks 0-4:

  • I’ve been surprised to see so many political themes used throughout the readings, I didn’t anticipate this. Again it may because I’m not part of the ‘education’ world per se, but the political influence in this area is very apparent with papers such as Hall, R. (2016). This was quite an eye-opener – not particularly due to the content but the author’s (rather militant?) approach to the subject.
  • I’ve dipped my toe into certain learning theories before. Cognitivism is certainly a recurring theme in my circles, and I think this may be as a result of the on-going strive for efficiency. Given the online training is largely delivered under the rationale of knowledge transfer, it makes sense that those developing it what want to understand the workings of the mind, and use this as a basis for their approach. It’s been interesting to explore other approaches such as cognitivism, which seems (from my experience at least) to be a much broader, and richer way of looking at education and learning. I’m looking forward to exploring how this can be used as a tangible framework.
  • It was reassuring on the recent skype to hear that some of the terminology and concepts used so far were new to many of us and not just me! It’s certainly a big learning curve so far to get to grips some of the recommended reading materials, but feel the papers are becoming easier and quicker to digest. Admittedly it’s still taking time to familiarise myself with the key concepts (‘trans-humanism’ and ‘post-humanism’ are still a challenge), but I’m starting to recognise these. The course itself has been very approachable, and this has been the glue that has binded it all together (as it should!).
  • I’ve very much enjoyed experiencing the different forms of communication. The mix of asynchronous (forums, introductory videos and blog feedback) and synchronous (skype chat and skype voice) provides different benefits, and on the flipside different challenges. I felt a strange feeling of relief after the first skype chat session, I think this was because I didn’t feel that I was on a different ‘playing field’ as the others and could add to the discussions. It also reduced that sense of isolation, which I feel is unfortunately common in many online learning/training experiences.
  • Following on from the last bullet, having read and re-read Biesta (2012) I’m certainly aware of my own tendency to ‘learnify’, which may not be the right choice. I’m increasingly becoming more aware of the role of a teacher, and the importance of this, and this is something I’m sure I will continue to ruminate on.

References:

The challenge in choice of terminology

Bayne, S. (2015). intertwines with similar themes as the paper I critiqued, namely Hamilton, E., and Friesen, N. (2013). While Friesen looks at the approaches to research in the relationship between technology and education, Bayne raises some another difficulty (and one that could be argued that contributes to the same blinkered viewpoint) in the term ‘Technology-Enhanced Learning’, or TEL for short. Indeed when reviewing one, it’s difficult to not look at them as a pair, or at least with common concerns about research, discussion and labels in this area.

A couple of key themes I took from the paper were:

  • ‘TEL’ is intended as a rather broad description, yet despite being intended as quite an innocuous and neutral tag, actually has some significant repercussions.
  • Much like Friesen suggests with the constructivist approach (vs essentialist or instrumentalist), there’s a richness in the social, historical and intertwined aspects of TEL that this fails to capture. Bayne argues this is as a result of the each of the descriptors in turn – Technology, Enhancement and Learning.

Given these recent readings (and the others suggested as part of week 4), it seems there are some really intense debates going on, which can only be healthy! My view is they could be seen as ‘growing pains’, and it seems to me that these important challenges to current ways of thinking are particularly pertinent given the current pace of change. I guess the challenge is can the research keep up with this pace, particularly if any changes as a result of these arguments may require time to gain traction and be adopted by the community?

Going back to Bayne’s core argument, that TEL fails to capture the complexity of the situation, does strike a chord with my current professional work. We hear a variety of terms being bandied about – elearning (with and without the hyphen!), online learning, online courses, digital learning – all with their own history, connotations and reason for being.

Heading up a commercial organisation, we often find ourselves having to use the language our customers use (externally at least). We can contribute to influence change with our choice of terminology, but the pragmatic aspects of being able to found online for the search terms our customers are using and also finding common ground in conversations mean we could actually be part of the issue here, rather than the solution! It’s very much a vicious circle however, as Bayne quite rightly points out that terms such as TEL (or elearning or online training) create pre-ordained expectations before conversations actually begin.

I certainly recognise many of the themes in Biesta, G. (2012) in my professional practice, the ‘learnification’ of education in particular. This really struck a chord. This ‘student-centerness’ is prevalent in the circles I work in, and this could be driven by the efficiency angles referenced in many of the recent readings.

This quote resonated, that is referenced in Bayne:

that is, a transaction in which (i) the learner is the (potential) consumer, the one who has certain needs, in which (ii) the teacher, the educator, or the educational institution becomes the provider, that is, the one who is there to meet the needs of the learner, and where (iii) education itself becomes a commodity to be provided or delivered by the teacher or educational institution and to be consumed by the learner. (Biesta, 2005)

Perhaps the very commercial nature of the training/learning (whatever you want to frame it as) I’m involved in is helping to drive this. The lack of human tutoring (much of the training we’re involved in is asynchronous knowledge transfer), and therefore reduced costs is seen as a way of delivering cost-effectively at scale, but ultimately at what price to the student’s experience (and overall impact of the training itself)?

References:

A critical analysis of Hamilton, E., and Friesen, N. (2013)

One of the key aspects Hamilton and Friesen (2013) argue is that studies into the potential of technologies, and the pedagogical value of these, are limited by the approach often used in the conduct of the research. This echoes studies by McDougall & Jones, 2006 and Roblyer, 2005, that research into this area has “struggled to find its theoretical roots” (Graham, 2011, p. 1).

Hamilton and Friesen’s rationale is that a significant amount of research to date has been conducted through the viewpoints of essentialism and instrumentalism. These orientations, while providing useful insight, are hindered as “they fail to grasp the social and historical dimensions of technology”.

Indeed, Hamilton and Friesen are not lone voices in this area. Selwyn (2012) stresses that “education and digital technology should strive to analyse the exchanges between everyday practices and the encompassing cultural and societal structures” (p. 91), adding backing to the importance of social considerations. This echoes Savin-Baden, Tombs, Bhakta (2015), in that “research has tended to neglect the social context within which students interact with pedagogical agents” (p. 297).

Hamilton and Friesen make a persuasive case of their argument through detailed reasoning and strong evidence. By providing a thorough dissection of the essentialist and instrumentalist approaches on a theoretical basis, this allows the reader to pick apart the theoretical considerations, and in turn view the deficiencies in the two approaches. This also provides the reader with an insight into the depth of examination that has been conducted.

Investigations such as this are important, as any weaknesses in the research (of any subject area) have to be a cause for concern. Ultimately if the conclusions of any research work are to be used to provide a ‘sure footing’ to guide future development and influence direction, it needs to avoid any limitations. As the authors put it, the limitation “hampers understanding of the educational value of new technologies”.

While the critique of recent research appears strong, nonetheless there are areas in the paper that warrant scrutiny.

The assertion in the introduction that “technologies… (are)… of beneficial value in education.” is rather broad, and could be argued glosses over some of the intricacies and practicalities around the use of technology in education, and also don’t consider the  negative perspectives (for example Selwyn (2011) and Wood, Mueller, Willoughby, Specht & Deyoung (2005)) around this topic.

Whilst the authors make a compelling case on the limitations of current research, they would be mindful to be wary of any of their own blind spots, such as an unconscious positivity towards the opportunities with technology. Indeed considering the negative arguments around technology and education could further influence the choice and variety of viewpoints to consider in this field.

The authors also present a strong case for a constructivist approach in researching this field. Given the flaws in an essentialist and instrumentalist approach, they argue that a constructivist approach would allow social and historical aspects to be brought into the framework, and therefore provide a more rounded view.

Although a compelling argument is made, again driven by examples and case studies throughout, by only providing an insight into a constructivist approach (that one could argue they seem to favour), it could be contended that they have fallen into the same trap they are actively arguing against. There is a limited critique of the constructivist viewpoint, and given the purpose of the paper, some explicit scrutiny of this could have demonstrated stronger objectivity.

Contrast this with Selwyn’s (2012) paper. Although similarly strong arguments are made by Selwyn in his critique of current research in this area, he understands the inherent self-sabotage in simply changing tact towards a single, alternate approach. In his view“there is no one ‘correct’ theoretical stance to adopt when looking at… education and digital technology”.  Hamilton and Friesen allude to this in their own conclusion, but by providing a detailed breakdown of how a constructivist framework can address the issues with current research (without other alternatives or further an outline of potential flaws in this approach), one could argue they are demonstrating an inherent preference themselves.

Overall Hamilton and Friesen’s paper provides a compelling argument that the realm of education and technology should be considered through alternative philosophical standpoints in order to “provide fruitful new directions for online education research”. However further opinion should be sought to turn this into a tangible practice and minimise the risk of an incomplete view.

References:

Skype chat – a reflection

Today I hit a bit of a dip. I’m sure it happens to most participants at some stage, but all of a sudden the reality of what I’ve got myself into dawned on me. After struggling but persevering through the readings from week 2 (some of them I found more accessible than others, namely the Gert Biesta paper), I’d then learned what would be required in weeks 3 and 4.

How will I ever find time to do the extra reading?

How do I keep up with everyone else on the course?

The blogs seems to take me ages, how I am going to ever going to tackle a more academic style of writing?

Luckily then, we had our first skype chat this evening. It was hosted by a couple of course tutors, and it came as a breath of fresh air.

As mentioned previously, the beauty of a course on a topic such as ‘Digital Education’ is that we are very much learning by doing. I think the sense of overwhelming is contributed by not only the effort and time to work through the course itself, but trying to maintain a close eye on how the course has been designed and is led by the team. I feel there is as much to learn from the latter as the former, and am keen not to lose the opportunity to recognise the excellent course design and delivery in play. While I am aware that this blog should reflect on and critique the discussions, motions and readings been proposed, I’m finding it is increasingly more useful to record my observations of the course I’m taking part in.

Tonight’s Skype was a chance to discuss ‘critical perspectives’. The brief for week 3 and 4 felt a little daunting, particularly since it’s such a leap into the known for someone who hasn’t been involved in formal education for such a long time (and at a significantly higher level than previous). Having now reflected on the skype chat, I feel more assured about what’s involved and required.

In terms of the chat itself, I think it came at a really good point in the course journey so far. Week 2 had felt a step up, and given some of the content was more difficult for me to contribute to when compared with the discussions in week 1.

I felt like we’d established strong early connections through the forums, but for me, this was the first time that there was a sense of a learning ‘community’. Perhaps this synchronous, fast-paced dialogue, through a platform like Skype, is an important element to establish those human connections, in a way that other platforms, such as forums cannot yet deliver. This format felt like an online version of a group face-to-face discussion (with many other distinct advantages), and I’m yet to consider what the stronger elements are at play here – am I finding comfort in a recognisable form of learning, or is just appealing to my human traits? Perhaps a bit of both.

Throughout the Skype session the example from week 1 – The disembodied student – was at the back of my mind. I’d built a dialogue with these people already, some of them more than others. How would the interactions change in this new format (especially given the pace of comment is more rapid)? Would I learn more about the other students I’d engaged with already and those that I’m yet to meet? Who is really at the end of the other computer (and do I really care)?

For my own reference, I wanted to document the practical aspects of what I feel made the session a success:

  • We already knew of each other, through our forum postings. Enough connection had been made (and enough common ground established), before putting the students in the increasingly involved environment.
  • Rory and Clara gave ample opportunity for chat participants to say hello to each other before getting stuck into the real purpose of the chat. Like the ‘ice-breaker’ in an instructor-led session, it knocked off some the edges and made us all more comfortable in offering our opinions.
  • I sensed that all the participants had been involved in chat environments like this before. In many ways, this is a pro and a con of the course. By the very nature of what we are studying, there’s shared knowledge we can apply in the very practicalities of how we are learning. However how transferable the format of a course such as this to those with less experience is one to unpick.
  • Using chat, rather than voice and/or webcam felt appropriate for the development of the group so far. Very well judged, and certainly reduces some of the apprehension some may have about the voice chat next week.
  • Having two chat hosts working in tandem added real value. WIthin such a big group it ensured the conversation could continue at a good pace and with a strong direction. Of course, and it goes without saying, that both hosts were obviously very experienced in the format and knowledgeable in the subject matter!
  • Rory had either prepared a list of questions to pose (and in a logical order), or he is particularly quick thinking. Either way being equipped to direct the conversation well is key.
  • Not every student was in the group. I’m looking forward to meeting others online already connected with on the next session next week!

Bravo on a well-designed learning experience!

The automated teaching assistant aka ‘teacherbot’

The developing potential in it was clear to see in Sian Bayne’s paper (Bayne S. (2015) Teacherbot: interventions in automated teaching. Teaching in Higher Education. 20(4):455-467) on the ‘teacherbot’ developed by a team at the University of Edinburgh, and used in an earlier MOOC.

The twitterbot examples we’d found as a collective were by their very nature designed for consumption by large audiences, and in most cases offered little interaction. They use the power of algorithms to source, rework and mix up varieties of content.

Given Twitter’s primary use as a platform for interaction, it was really intriguing to find how the teacherbot had been designed for use for a particular set of people (namely the MOOC participants) but also provided value in several ways.

It seemed like the bot offered some immediate efficiency gains, for example, automated reminders of assessment deadlines, based on keywords. But it seemed to me in the paper that one of Sian’s key arguments was that automation should not just be viewed as simply a way of gaining efficiencies. Indeed exploration in this field should be framed differently, to provide a wider field to test its potential.

So the real excitement comes from the examples of interaction between the teacherbot and MOOC student, even if it was “slightly ‘clunky’ and often rather wide-of-the-mark”. It seems in some cases it provoked useful reflection and discussion, which would add value to the student’s experience.

The paper did make me ponder on a few things: It’d be fascinating to see

  • It’d be fascinating to see teacherbot v2. Given its first iteration was understandably clunky at times, and that an algorithm/bot improves when it is receptive to feedback, it’d be useful to view how much interaction happens the second time around, and the value it brings to the student experience. Given subsequent ‘polishing’ of the teacherbot interactions, I wonder if it would become increasingly difficult to spot it as a bot. (Obviously, there are the ethical discussions to be had here about not raising awareness of this with students, but putting this to one side for now…).
  • Taking this further, and should bots become more commonplace with these environments, would students increase or decrease their interaction with the bot as a result, and ultimately would they even care if it was human or non-human? Is that relevant to the experience, and is this just a personal choice?
  • In some of the forum postings, there has been some discussion about the procurement of technology within education, and how this has in several instances been sold into the institution or organisation gain as an efficiency gain (primarily). The pedagogical advantages have been at times been a secondary consideration. Given the speed of development or development of any technology is often tied in with the adoption rate (more usage brings more development), should we think more pragmatically about this, and ensure that any technology we wish to bring into education has an efficiency element to appeal to certain stakeholders within the decision-making process?