Just as you set up the normal classroom and use a variety of teaching practices to create an environment that supports and encourages student learning, so too should you apply this to the online environment, says Konrad Glagowski, in his recent talk to us about ‘classrooms as third places’. The theme of his talk was about creating a place that allows an online learning community to emerge; not building it for the students but building it with them.

Using the four key attributes of a great place (uses and activities, comfort and image, sociability, and access and linkages), Konrad described the teacher’s role in helping to set-up “the kind of environment where learning experiences can take shape”. He does this by providing opportunities for creative and expressive writing that is personally relevant and beyond the normal coursework; allows students to customize, define and build their own web space and online presence (individual student blogs); promotes dialogue by using a readerly and participatory voice aligned with instructional scaffolding / conversations; actively encourages interactions and the formation of networks; and provides a visual representation of the community so that the members, content and interactions can be seen and easily accessed.

His experience involves online learning as an extension of his normal classroom teaching where he sees the students daily, so that the two overlap and build on each other. Even so, he takes considerable time (about a month) establishing the community before they then start on course-related work; is this related to his young students (13, 14 yrs) or does it actually take more time than we realize to lay good foundations? Personally I like the idea of taking time and allowing everyone to become comfortable with the environment, technology, and the process of revealing one’s thoughts. I particularly liked his visual representation of the community (eg a building with named windows that link to each student’s blog). I think this representation can help to create a feeling of ‘a group’ with everyone having a place in that group. It’s good to be reminded that very simple things can have a big impact!

In his blog, Konrad talks more about the five stages of creating learning experiences that have emerged from his own teaching.
1. Discover: student looks for a topic of interest from a course theme and begins exploring
2. Define: student narrows and defines their research topic and how they will approach it
3. Immerse: student becomes immersed in topic: blogs, reads, creates, and becomes part of online learning communities/networks
4. Build: begins to build their own knowledge that is evident on their blog
5. Contribute: creation of unique and individual artifacts to the field they are researching

Constructivism in action! This framework along with his talk reinforce important characteristics of online learning that have become increasingly evident since beginning this course: personally-relevant learning (authenticity), having an online identity, ownership of material, co-participation of the teacher and student, social learning networks (collaborative learning), transparent learning and the importance of the process rather than just the product.

I’m still considering the extent to which blogs and the processes described here could be used in a meaningful way in my teaching context, in that it adds value to the students learning. I can see that a project investigating a topic related to the body would provide the type of in-depth exploration Konrad describes with his students, but I’m also weary that for many beginner-level tertiary students, simply managing the large amount of content in the bioscience course in an online learning environment is challenging enough already.

I would certainly like to create more opportunity for interaction and social learning in the online environment, perhaps using student blogs as learning diaries where they have a place to share relevant knowledge / experiences / links, explore a topic of interest in more detail if they wish, make comments on topical issues (I think this incidental learning is really important), begin to have relevant conversations, and to reflect on their own learning. Maybe this is how it starts out in the first half of the course, progressing to using it for a project in the second half of the course. It certainly has given me lots to think about.

After visiting Stephen Downes website to find out more about eLearning 2.0 (or Web 2.0 as it is also known), it seems to be the future of online learning. In his ‘Trends and Impacts’ video he describes how eLearning has developed from an online learning environment that delivers content largely supporting traditional classroom-based learning, to the new age of eLearning 2.0 defined by ‘immersive learning’ (learning by doing) and ‘connected learning’ (conversation and interaction via computer-based learning networks; social networking). In this type of online learning, the learner essentially has a ‘personal learning centre’ where they create their own learning by using and mixing content and materials from the web and other sources according to their own needs and interests.

And here comes the “blog”, which two weeks ago I had barely even uttered the word, to now when my head seems to be bursting with stuff about and on blogs. A blog can be this ‘personal learning centre’, used to create and showcase a learner’s work. He says about blogging, it “is very different from traditionally assigned learning content. It is much less formal. It is written from a personal point of view, in a personal voice. Students' blog posts are often about something from their own range of interests, rather than on a course topic or assigned project. More importantly, what happens when students blog, and read reach others' blogs, is that a network of interactions forms-much like a social network.”

In the recent Distance Learning article, Stephen Downes describes how eLearning 2.0 could be applied to an online course. His essential requirements for the course: “the learners choose their own technology - whether blogs, discussion boards, audio feeds, or whatever ...” and “the content is not imposed on them, but is rather, self-selected”. I’m wondering how could a teacher manage all this flexibility, how could standards be maintained, how could students possibly manage to cover all the (typically huge) course prescription?

And he admits this isn’t going to be easy in a tertiary education setting, as there’s too much predefined content and classes, and thinks “the best that can be done is to mitigate the disadvantages. Basically, what this means is throwing a lot of stuff out there and letting people craft their own course out of it”. This sounds even worse than the previous statements!

However his description of what could work is better: content area for course material but with as little design imposed on it as possible (I’m not sure about that, some structure and guidance is surely needed), course blog or similar which would be a focal point for resources and discussion, online synchronous chat like Elluminate, course community for social connections perhaps by discussion list or student blogs. Hang on, this all sounds familiar, isn’t this what we are experiencing in the facilitating eLearning course. Aha, the proof (of how good eLearning 2.0 is) will be in the learning!

The course has started with communication happening through a course blog, our own blog, the google email group, Elluminate and Bb. Of these I am only familiar with Bb. It was all a little confusing to begin with, much like any new student to an unfamiliar course and environment feels. It’s true to say that I’m in the ‘dark ages’ about computer technology, having only mastered the basics of word documents, spreadsheets, the web etc, so I’m beginning to get a sense of a big new world out there, which is both scary and exciting at the same time. This is also the first course I have taken where I have not had the opportunity for any f2f sessions with any of the other participants at the start, so I’m finding it a little strange not having any faces to fit to people’s comments.

An initial online ice-breaker activity had us introducing ourselves to the group. While I gained a ‘feel’ for the group and identified areas of commonality it didn’t spark much social conversation. I think at this time many of us were preoccupied with trying to sort out the various ways of communicating. I think icebreaker activities are important; they set the tone that ‘we want to know you and start working together’. Lots of examples can be found here at the index of icebreakers.

Learning styles (ILS questionnaire and descriptions available here)

My learning styles result showed I have a moderate preference for sensing (7) and visual (5) dimensions while the other dimensions were fairly balanced (1). Sensing learners like fact, details, well-established methods, practical work, and learning with real-world connections, and this fits well with my science background and teaching the fundamentals of environmental science and bioscience. I’m surprised the visual learning didn’t score higher as this is very strong for me, and used extensively in my teaching with lots of pictures, flow diagrams, concept maps, and demonstrations. And also I would have thought that the reflective dimension would have scored higher because I definitely prefer to sit back and think through things before I rush into anything (in learning and life in general).

The foundation level students I work with usually determine their own learning styles at the start of the course and guidance is provided on how they can best use this to help themselves learn more effectively. Because they are often just entering tertiary study for the first time it can take a while for this to develop. Also those students who are more intuitive do struggle with the emphasis on facts, detail and difficult terminology that is typical of science-based courses.

The blog begins

I will be using this web log to document my experiences and learning about online facilitation and communities. Already there has been so much to think about and we've only just begun. I'll post my thoughts shortly but for now some inspirational thoughts from this week:
'conversations are the stem cells of learning'
'teaching, blogging, learning'

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.| Header image by southenz using Wordle | Blogger Templates by GeckoandFly modified and converted to Blogger Beta by Blogcrowds.