From frustrated confusion to hallelujah – the team-leader’s side of the story

ONL is a course that is really difficult at first – even though the course team really tries to be clear and give a firm structure, the set-up is very different from what most of us have experienced, hence initial confusion closely followed by frustration. The course sort of has to be allowed to grow on you, a process that is only possible if frustration is kept at a tolerable level, and if proper support is provided.

I have seen many PBL groups come and go, on campus and online. Each group is its very own mix of humans and therefore unique. Certain common traits can be observed in the group process for most groups, but the outcome differs – some groups never really get going properly, some groups fall apart – and some groups really demonstrate the true power of collaboration. In a previous life I liked to have two PBL groups in each course to be able to detach myself (at least partly) from the course of events in the groups – assuming that I was approximately the same person at 10am as at 1pm. Sometimes both groups worked fine and sometimes one group didn’t – and then I had the experience from the other group to fall back on. This told me that my own importance in groups is fairly limited, once they’ve got started. I have come to believe that in the end it all boils down to the combination of persons, personal qualities and personalities – provided the course work is intelligently crafted.

This iteration of the ONL course was my fifth as a facilitator, and my first with a co-facilitator who was very much present in meetings and everyday activities of the group. The group (PBL5, the best) was a truly international bunch – one Aussie, one Pakistani, one Pole, two South Africans and four Swedes. The work in the group came to function miraculously well (despite e g 9 hrs time zone difference) and even though we had some tech issues, the group managed to meet face-to-face regularly and everyone was attentive enough all the way through so that nothing was left hanging. In her recent blog post, co-facilitator Kay Oddone takes a closer look at the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of successful group collaboration, mentioning dedication to a shared purpose, respect for each other and each other’s contributions and flexibility in the decision-making process as ingredients in the ‘special sauce’ of this fabulous group.

I learnt a lot again, about people’s willingness to learn and take on responsibility, about friendliness and respect, and also obviously about course content and new tools. Apart from this, what I will take with me to the next round of ONL is the idea of a communication strategy – to try and make it clear to everyone exactly what goes where. One of the main hurdles in this course is simply finding one’s way about the different sites and pages – and this is a steady source of frustration during the first important weeks. The lowest common denominator when it comes to communication these days is email – so this is the place to start.

Final reflection

“Learning is at the heart of personal change and transformation, and the learner needs to take risks and deal with changing situations in his or her environment.” (Kop et al, 2011)

This sentence pretty well sums up what FDOL has been about for me: widening my comfort zone.

Reviewing my old posts:

The digital me Well, yes, here I am, out of my cave for several weeks now, actually thriving! I’m thinking of the final piece of advice for the south-east quadrant in Coomey & Stephensons paper (2001): “Beware that learners could become so involved in browsing that they might not be thinking about the learning related to specific subject matter (Ewing et al, 1999)” – that’s me!

The digital me #2 The first confusing weeks condensated into this post; I was trying really hard to get my head around all this. Looking back, it’s not until now, some four weeks later, that I really feel I know what I’m supposed to do (and where).

Halfway digitally literate? Just a few days later, in a new, more active group, motivation goes up and I’m having fun. Also getting to be a real sucker for comments on my posts! Peer feedback is a truly forceful instrument.

Flexibilities galore My earlier experiences of distance learning from The digital me #2 comes to mind – the flexible learning back then differs in many aspects from this ‘new’ flexible – but some of it remains firmly the same.

Collaboration anywhere in sight? Collaboration in the FDOL frame has been a real pleasure. Being able to relax into a group of people, each doing their thing while simultaneously contributing towards a common whole, was something I didn’t expect. There has been an easy mixture of effort and effortlessness in the group’s work combined with a willingness to take on responibility for this or that. Great!! When I started working on this topic I felt recalcitrant to it and wanted to remain sitting on the fence. I discussed the idea of creativity in groups with a friend who is a copywriter. His view on that is pretty much summed up by this newspaper article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-new-groupthink.html (and don’t miss the first of the comments!).

Supporting learners Two hours after publishing this post there already was a comment posted on it: “You really describe spot on the changes over time! You can really think about why there is now such a great need for support when everything is so well organized and more goal-oriented – what happened along the way?” – a good example of support for the learner and a new thought there too, just the way you’d like it! The way I see it, this course has been exemplary in its construction in so far as it has promoted and had us participants experience the points it has set out to make: the importance of well thought-out tasks, well-managed group-work, teacher and peer support etc.

OK – so for remaining enigmas? Exactly how private is a private community on Google+? Still some of the tools work in a slightly haphazard way, like sometimes I see the green telephone receiver symbol for google hangout, sometimes I don’t. Or am I the haphazard bit?

 

 

 

 

Supporting learners

When I think of support during my undergraduate studies, my Mum comes to mind, always there to provide mental support and administer cups of tea the night before exams. She often told me of her own university years, starting in the spring term 1940, when there were about 2000 students at Lund University (today 47000) and quite few women among them, that it was on one hand more personal with smaller student groups and on the other hand much less formalized. I know she dreaded written exams – of which there were many – but the oral exams, even though they were more personal and sometimes quite relaxed, stand out from her stories as whims of eccentric professors more than anything.

Apart from private late night tea parties at my Mum’s, as I remember it, the firm (to the point of being constrictive) structure of the programme and the goings-over after exams was what there was to be had from educators as far as support goes. Peer support was almost never formalized but something we just did as a natural part of studies.

Students and course participants these days seem to expect more in the way of support then I can remember us doing. It is truly an axiom that students always feel they are not getting enough feedback on what they are doing. In campus courses students socialize with each other and have relatively easy access to teaching staff even though there may not always be built-in regular features for this, whereas in an online course this has to be regularized. Coomey & Stephenson (2001) state that “The need for support is the most frequently mentioned feature of online learning.” and include “periodic face-to-face contact, online tutorial supervision, peer support, advice from experts, feedback on performance, support services and software tools” as desirable parts.

There are several other areas where support may be of vital importance, apart from specifically in a course. Simpson (2008) cover some of those within learning motivation. At Lund University there is an Academic Support Centre (ASC) where students can get help and support with writing, study skills, speaking and presentation skills etc. The ASC, which just recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, has seen a growing demand for its services over the past years. Study guidance is also available. Though these supporting functions may be helpful, Simpson suggests there may be a need for other kinds of input to this area and suggests theories of learning motivation of interest to open and distance learning educators. He refers to Anderson (2003) suggesting that motivation is the best predictor of student retention. More about this on: http://stephenp.net/2007/08/24/student-retention-ormond-simpson-the-open-university/.

The learning experience from this FDOL course has pointed out some areas for development in the courses we are currently running. As mentioned in an earlier post (https://lottaabjorn.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/6-openness-craze-and-open-educational-practices/) changes have been made to the support given from teachers and further changes are being discussed…

 

Collaboration anywhere in sight?

Having started compulsory school in Sweden in 1969 (curriculum LGr69 = Läroplan för Grundskolan 1969), I have a deeply ingrained distrust in anything remotely like groupwork. Really good idea on the whole, mostly really badly managed in reality. I wonder whether the term “collaborative learning” existed in 1969? Most students, I believe also those not subjected to LGr69 at an early stage, dislike groupwork, and for a number of good reasons; a perceived asymmetry in level of commitment, effort and quality of individual contributions, lack of shared goals and an imbalance between individual and collective grades. These reasons are mentioned in Capdeferro & Romero’s paper about online learners (2012), but I believe the very same irritants are applicable to any campus course.

Along the way I started working as a teacher in a PBL-setting and got interested in life in tutorial groups. The role of the tutor in such groups varies to a large extent from the traditional teacher role, and as I found this challenging I went about learning more about group dynamics to improve my skills in managing the groups. The difference between what I remember from the groupwork of my school days and PBL lies in the surrounding framework and the managerial skills of the tutors; a firm structure of a course, specified intended learning outcomes, rules about how to conduct the activities in the group and at the onset of the course an active tutor to guide students.

The collaboration that goes on in a PBL-group is supposed to emulate the natural problem-solving process in real life workplaces (e.g. clinical work in a hospital), but is a meticulously fabricated construction no matter how you look at it. A bit like practising swimming strokes out of the water, but probably as good as it gets.

In a PBL-group there are four levels or aspects of the work that can be observed: content of subject matter, working method, group dynamics (process) and metacognition. When you set about working as a tutor, the first thing you worry about is whether the students will cover the intended material and learn according to plan. To guide the work there are intended learning outcomes and for the tutor (usually) a tutor guide. When you’re satisfied that will come out about right, your next worry is if the group is working according to the set rules, i.e. the problem solving process. For that you have the “Seven Jump” describing the process. The group process or dynamics is the next issue to be addressed. For this, each newly-formed group is requested to draw up a contract for their prospective work. The contract is then used for evaluation after (some) group sessions. Lastly, there is the question of metacognition. This is addressed by asking questions like “How are we doing with this group work?” or “Could we do this more efficiently?”.

The work in the PBL group in the FDOL course has been less structured, but the four levels described above have been on my mind at times. The intended learning outcomes and tasks are described under each topic and the COOL FISh design points out the “how”. Each group participant assumes responsibility for his or her own work and outcome, and also for contributing to the joint effort. The metacognitive reflective part has been done partly individually, partly in the group.

In this FDOL course the real collaboration started after I’d gotten over the initial obstacles and was starting to find my way around the different tools and spaces. To be able to collaborate you need to truly feel you can contribute towards the shared work and not feel you are held back by technicalities, which is something to consider when choosing tools for educational purposes.

 

 

Flexibilities galore

Interesting, these buzz words – suddenly they’re everywhere. Flexible is one of them, or maybe it’s that I suddenly tuned into that channel. It’s being used for everything from selling cars to e-learning initiatives. And today is “Work-at-home-day” in Sweden, third consecutive year, and lots of companies close their offices and let the employees work from home. Incidentally this morning there was an article in The New Zealand Herald about how to separate work and home when working from home  with interesting ideas about how to manage the transition to work at home. (nzherald.co.nz/small-business/news/article.cfm?c_id=85&objectid=11226594)

Anderson & Simpson (2012) look back at the history of distance learning and establish the fact that “people have always learned through open and flexible means” – thinking of preachers and itinerant storytellers as early teachers. Until the invention of the printing press most of the dissemination of knowledge was an oral affair at least where the common people was concerned. The next important thing after Gutenberg was the establishing of postal services. Now, five hundred odd years later, postal services are once again not that reliable, but we have e-mails and the web to sort out most day-to-day requirements. If people stayed on in their professions and lived more or less permanently in an area through all their working life fifty or hundred years ago, today it is common to change careers two or three times and move several times. Flexible learning for many offers a solution to the need for further education.

“Flexible learning” is frequently followed by “distance” and/or “online”, which entails the presence of a computer or other mobile device. A 2013 study of incoming college students in the US revealed that 78% had regular access to a mobile device, which means that at the time 22% did not! How are these catered for? (universitybusiness.com/article/bridging-digital-divide)

Flexible in terms of time in many cases mean invasion on off-duty hours or leisure time. Finding a reasonable balance between work and time off is difficult. Being online more or less permanently, students may expect answers to questions from teachers late at night or during weekends. So – in the end some of us may in actual fact end up being tied down by flexibility.

 

Openness craze and open educational practices

A difficult thing, this openness craze. I see my kids, and their friends, sharing material on social media I would never even consider sharing, let alone openly. On Facebook people write about and share humongous amounts of quite personal and incredibly uninteresting things. At the same time people seem increasingly secretive about some things and kids at school shower wearing  underpants or don’t shower at all. Makes me think of a line from “Sound of Music” (a great film from 1965): “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window” except I think here it may be the other way around: When God opens a window, somewhere he closes a door. A need to preserve some aspects in a tiny private corner?

Where I work there has always been an openness in the sense that if you are going to teach something for the first time and somebody else has done it before, you are welcome to borrow files and use any material you like. Among teachers attending our courses the question of ownership and copyright is brought up intermittently. I’ve never heard it the other way around “imagine what I would be able to gain if I used and developed existing material and shared it openly” – largely I think because you have to experience for yourself real benefits of open practices and still many of the colleagues haven’t.

Weller & Anderson (2013) refer to Holling’s definition of resilience from his paper on the stability of ecological systems:  ‘a measure of the persistance of systems and their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables’. On a great many levels open educational practices clash not only with personal convictions but also with existing rock-steady structures in HE; financing, assessment and orientation towards fixed “outcome sums” to name a few, as mentioned by Kop et al (2011). The shift in educational practices and delivery of education of any kind that will be necessary  is bound to be a tough nut to crack, but as more and more people see the advantages it will eventually come about, sluggishness or not on the part of HE institutions.

One web-based course that I’m presently involved in, LATHE – Learning And Teaching in Higher Education, is run through LUVIT, one of the fourteen (yes, fourteen) different LMS’s presently in use at Lund University. LUVIT was created at LU and has been around for quite some time. We have had problems retaining LATHE participants with drop-out rates around 30%, but lately a real effort has been made to improve support from facilitators. This seems to have made a real difference, judging from course evaluation and decreasing drop-outs. However, certain functionalities are not available in LUVIT, like notifications when someone comments on a post, and the whole layout is unfriendly and unintuitive. So, in the end we may be migrating the whole course to something completely different to increase the sense of openness and better the conditions for collaboration.

The lonely bird perched on a telephone wire makes me think that a few weeks ago I had never taken part in a flexible online open course (and hardly knew they even were out there more than as distant concept, like MOOC), where as now I have earned a first set of wings and can fly whereever I like…

Halfway digitally literate?

March 5th. In the first days of fourth week I am finding myself more and more engaged in activities on the different course fora and finding my way around more readily. Have swopped groups due to drop-outs from the first one. Much more going on, more people active in this one. Good. Also have been alloted a new learning partner; not quite sure what learning partners were meant to do? Will find out. Google+ moved from screen 4 to home screen on my phone.

The digital me #2

Two weeks into the course new thoughts have entered my mind. That’s the meaning of it all, isn’t it? The fun of learning! 25 years ago I took a teacher training course aimed at nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, at Uppsala university (‘Vårdlärarlinjen’). The course was run as a full-time “distance course” over a year and a half. Each time  the course was run, it was with study groups in different parts of Sweden. I joined a study group in Boden, 80 kilometres from Piteå where I lived at the time (about 800 kms north of Uppsala). All study groups assembled in Uppsala three weeks each term for an assortment of face-to-face activities, and while “at home” we met in the study group about once a week. During this time I started using a word processor (a pc) – actually, the curriculum included a course called ‘computer knowledge’ – whereas all communication with the teachers in Uppsala was by post. Before this course, my sole experience of higher education was two and a half years at a very traditionalistic physiotherapy programme, and the first half of this course I was severely frustrated over the lack of instructions and structure. A week spent with co-participants and teachers in Tällberg halfway through the second term changed all this; it suddenly dawned upon me that I was in the driver’s seat of my own development and actually could decide largely what I wanted to do with the material and assignments provided by the course leaders. This was a true turning point for me!

When I consider this, I see some similarities to the experience of FDOL141 – the confusion, the uncertainty, the frustration regarding the set-up of the course, the different forums and also all these new digital tools, how they work (or don’t), how I manage them (or fail to). The group I’m in isn’t very active (neither am I) and I constantly wonder whether I’m looking in the right places for information and activities.

The digital me

Up to a very short while ago, there was no such thing as a digital me. On this very first day of the FDOL course, my time spent viewing digital resources and tools have increased by around 6000%. I even shared a youtube clip on facebook and made a comment on a friend’s post, which I normally never do. In my house there are two teenagers who spend plenty of time on the net and two younger kids (8 and 10) who play online games while on skype with their friends. I feel very much like the net-world immigrant I am, uncertain of how to wrestle all these tools and locations. Things I enjoy doing are often slow and physical – in the sense that they involve a physical person or object – like talking to a friend, sewing by hand or cooking, or writing proper letters using a fountain pen. Wildly out of fashion! So, what am I doing here? What occurrence manages to draw me out of the secure crevices of my cave? Well – an incipient hope that there may be a cauldron filled with solid gold coins at the end of the course, of course. Or at least that I will find some tools useful and find pleasure in being able to wield them.