Everyone Needs Positive Feedback #edcmooc

neverOne final reflection on the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (for now). Last week I wrote about what was required to complete the course. While it is not over-demanding, the possibility of failure is not something any of us welcomes, so it was with a sense of relief as well as satisfaction that I read the very positive comments on my final submission this morning, and discovered that I had secured a Grade 1 Pass (the only alternative being a Grade 0 Fail!).

I suspect that it is this aspect of the massive, open and online course which will attract most scepticism, if not outright cynicism, the fact that success and failure are based largely on the observations of your peers and not the course tutors. Yet in a way that is what I find most attractive about it. While the ultimate responsibility for learning remains with the learner, there is a great sense in which the whole endeavour is a collaborative effort. Every participant is reaching for a better understanding of the topic, not for the right answer. This piece of advice on the MOOC site sums it up perfectly:-

Giving and receiving constructive feedback
“Explaining your understanding of someone’s work to them will help them to refine their own understanding and will also help you refine your own – it’s a reciprocal process. This is the purpose of this peer feedback exercise.

Of course this formal exercise should not be the only opportunity that you take to interact with your fellow students during and after this course. This process is formal, and anonymous. You should seek to create your own opportunities for collaboration and discussion – in the discussion forum, and in self-organised and emergent groups in which you can cultivate relationships, pursue common interests, and engage in more intimate discussions.

You should be both supportive and critical in what you write. What might that mean in practice? The notion of being supportive is probably the easiest to understand. You are all in this together. This course – learning in general – is not a ‘zero-sum game’ where only one person can win and others must lose. When the group works together everyone benefits. Receiving feedback on our work provides valuable guidance and stimulus to further thought. Giving feedback on the work of others helps us to clarify our own thinking through the act of framing it in the process of communication. To be supportive will also imply courtesy and sensitivity in the way in which we express our views. We can more productively assimilate and work with a comment when the other gives it and we receive it in a context of politeness and trust.

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The notion of criticality is more difficult to grasp, not least because our everyday usage of the word tends to carry the implication of negative criticism – focusing on, and pointing out, what is wrong. However, it is perfectly possible to be positively critical as well. One may point out a strength in some work, and then build on this by giving advice as to how to enhance that strength. ‘I like what you have done there. It made me think of ….. You might consider incorporating …..’. Or it may be that you see a strength that the creator has not made as explicit as they might have done. Encouragement may then be offered to the creator to go further with what they have started. A positive criticality may involve seeking to empathise with the creator, and how he or she might take the next steps. It may be about articulating sincerely held questions about a piece of work, and about the creator’s intentions in its production.”

When I embarked on this 5-week course, one of my aims was to examine how the principles of the MOOC might be applied in school settings, within the context of compulsory education. Sharing the responsibility for learning, including greater use of peer assessment and feedback, and removing ourselves from that ‘zero-sum game’ might not be a bad place to start.

The E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC is offered by the University of Edinburgh via Coursera. If you are interested in taking part in a MOOC you may also want to have a look at the FutureLearn website where you will find courses run by some of the UK’s top universities.

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Assessing The Past, Predicting The Future #edcmooc

Flying MachinesThis is the final week of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, so it is a time to look back and to look forward. What have I learned over the past five weeks, not only about the topic, but about the nature of the MOOC itself, and are MOOCs the way forward for education, or simply the latest fad? First, the reflection. I have really enjoyed engaging with the course materials and with the other course participants, through the discussion forums, Twitter conversations, Google Hangouts and other channels, but then I have become used to this way of learning over the past five or six years, so I was reasonably comfortable with it from the start. It could also be said that since I am no longer looking for full-time employment I have no more need for paper qualifications, and therefore my approach to the course, and to learning in general, has changed.

However, it would be easy to infer from all of the above that because of the very nature of the MOOC – free entry, high dropout rate, no formal qualification – that it is more ‘casual’ than traditional college or university courses. Not a bit of it. The course is highly-structured, deadlines are quite rigid, materials are well chosen and challenging, and tutor support is of the highest order. The standard of teaching is of a very high quality, at least on this MOOC, but unlike that in many conventional settings, it is highly focused and responsive to the needs of individual learners; feedback is more or less instant. There are no group lectures, but an introductory video to each block of study sets out clearly the themes and expectations for the week ahead. Whether these things are true of all MOOCs I have no idea, but for two very different takes on online learning I would recommend that you read this article, All Hail MOOCs. Just Don’t Ask If They actually Work, from Time magazine September 2013, and this post from the Learning with ‘e’s blog, The persistence of distance(learning) by Steve Wheeler.

“But what about assessment?”, I hear you ask, because while the internet has opened up the possibility of learning in all sorts of new ways, assessment still dominates much of our thinking and much of our conversation when it comes to education. Bear in mind that the course is only five weeks long, with a recommended study time of 5-7 hours per week, but since you asked, to ‘complete the course’ we have to submit a ‘digital artefact’ and evaluate the work of at least three other participants in the course, using agreed criteria – real peer assessment in action! The following notes are from the course guidance on the final assignment.

What do you mean by digital artefact?
We mean something that is designed to be experienced on and through the medbotium of the web. It will have the following characteristics:

  • it will contain a mixture of two or more of: text, image, sound, video, links.
  • it will be easy to access and view online.
  • it will be stable enough to be assessed for at least two weeks.

Try to have fun with this and use it as a chance to think broadly and creatively: anything goes in terms of the form of this assignment. As long as you keep the assessment criteria in mind you can be as experimental as you wish.

(Have FUN with this assessment? Doesn’t sound like an exam to me.)

Why do you want me to make a digital artefact?
Text is the dominant mode of expressing academic knowledge, but digital environments are multimodal by nature – they contain a mixture of text, images, sound, hyperlinks and so on. To express ourselves well on the web, we need to be able to communicate in ways that are ‘born digital’ – that work with, not against, the possibilities of the medium. This can be challenging when what we want to communicate is complex, especially for those who are used to more traditional forms of academic writing. Nevertheless, there are fantastic possibilities in digital environments for rethinking what it means to make an academic argument, to express understanding of complex concepts, and to interpret and evaluate digital work. In EDCMOOC, we have an opportunity to explore and experiment in a supportive and relatively low-stakes context. That’s why we want you to make an assignment that makes the most of the web – a digital artefact.

What topic should I choose?
There is a lot of flexibility in this assignment. You can choose to focus on the theme of ‘utopias and dystopias’, or on the theme of ‘being human’. You should use your artefact to express a question, an idea, a problem, a hope, a worry or a provocation that the course has raised for you. Consider how you can express something of your own context as an educator, student and/or technologist. What has the impact of this course been on your understanding of e- learning?

Actually, I am proposing to submit this series of blogposts as my digital artefact, but just for a bit of fun, I thought I would also try creating a short video clip which reflects a couple of the themes of the past month or so. The clip was created in iMovie, using the Trailer feature which allows you to choose which genre of film you are going to release (and makes things easier for beginners like me). It is also a very useful tool in the classroom if you are introducing young people to filmmaking, Thanks to a fortuitous tweet from one of my PLN, Kenny Pieper, I found these great templates for Planning a Better iMovie Trailer, which means you can spend some time working out what text to include – a good exercise in précis, since the more words you include the harder it is to read – and select your images in an appropriate sequence.

commonsThe images I used are from the Creative Commons, except the first three, which appear courtesy of my friends at Dreaming Methods and Inanimate Alice. The little running man was filmed on my phone at a street crossing in Girona, simply because it made me smile. I cropped it in iMovie itself using the cropping tool before inserting into the clip. The reason for creating the trailer was to encourage me to learn something about iMovie, which I had never used, and to express one or two of the course themes in a short timeframe.

One of these was what seemed to be the view of many technological determinists, that increasing technological advances will inevitably lead to a dystopian future, and the other was the fascinating idea that our use of metaphor tends to shape as well as reflect our view of the world. The green man on the ‘information highway’ is a very simple metaphor for the feeling that many people have when trying to navigate the world wide web – that they are in a very busy and potentially dangerous place – and he may also represent those ‘eco-warriors’ amongst us who are concerned that advances in technology are not made at the expense of the sustainability of the planet. I hope you find it interesting and amusing, and please feel free to evaluate it using the agreed criteria below.

Assessment criteria

These are the elements peer markers will be asked to consider as they engage with your artefact. You should make sure you know how your work will be judged by reading these criteria carefully before you begin.

  1. The artefact addresses one or more themes clearly relevant to the course
  2. The artefact demonstrates an understanding of one or more key concept from the course
  3. The artefact has something to say about education
  4. The choice of media is appropriate for the message
  5. The artefact stimulates a reaction in you, as its audience, e.g. emotion, thinking, action

So what of the future of MOOCs themselves? What I liked about taking part in the MOOC was the collaborative aspect of the learning – the sharing of ideas, the conversations around the key topics, and to some extent the random nature of some of the interactions. We were advised from the start that it would be impossible to contribute to every forum, to respond to every text, and to keep track of everything which was going on. This is an aspect of MOOCs which I imagine many people will find difficult. Similarly, if everything is conducted online, you could argue that the ‘human element’ is lost, and that there is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face, but one of the advantages of MOOCs is that they bring together (virtually) people from all over the world. The fact that the MOOC is free is important, allowing access to people regardless of their means, but what I find particularly appealing is this key message – when the focus of education is on the taking part, everyone’s a winner.

Are We Human, Or Are We Dancers? #edcmooc

Humanity-2.0I’m not quite on my knees looking for the answer, but the second (and final) block of study on the E-Learning and Popular Culture MOOC kicked off this week with a challenging look at what it is to be ‘human’, how that definition has shifted throughout the ages, the ways in which it is perceived to be under threat from the advance of technology, and the implications for the future of education. To listen, as we have done, to Professor Steve Fuller’s wonderfully erudite and idiosyncratic take on the history of ‘being human’ and to reflect on whether the ‘humanist project’ as it is described is still worth pursuing, click on this Tedx Warwick lecture from 2009. Believe me, you will be a better person for it.

In the Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, Nimrod Aloni tells us that the term ‘Humanistic Education’ is generally used to designate a variety of educational theories and practices that are committed to the world-view and ethical code of Humanism; that is, positing the enhancement of human development, well-being, and dignity as the ultimate end of all human thought and action – beyond religious, ideological, or national ideals and values. Historically, humanistic education can be traced back to the times of classical Athens with its central notion of Paideia, a few centuries later to the times of ancient Rome with it central notion of Humanitas, then the Renaissance’s Humanists, and in the early 19th century it was the German educator Neithammer who coined the concept of Humanism as indicating liberal education toward full humanity. Today, you will often hear this expressed in terms such as, ‘the need to educate the whole child‘. UNESCO, in its Education For The 21st Century, talks about being ‘committed to a holistic and humanistic vision of quality education worldwide, the realisation of everyone’s right to education, and the belief that education plays a fundamental role in human, social and economic development.’

The question before us now is this: does technology enable or inhibit such an ideal? There is no doubt that it is new technologies which allow us to connect and to network, and to provide access for many of those people who would otherwise be isolated from mainstream educational institutions – otherwise there would be no such thing as the MOOC – but for some, losing other ‘human’ attributes as a result of our over-dependence on machines is too heavy a price to pay. For my generation, this topic first arose as a serious concern with the introduction of electronic calculators in schools, and the debate shows no signs of abating. Consider this, from a 2004 article called ‘The Human Touch‘ by Dr Lowell Monke, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wittenberg:-

“A computer can inundate a child with mountains of information. However, all of this learning takes place the same way: through abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know a tree–by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these first hand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations–muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air. The computer cannot even approximate any of this. Here we encounter the ambiguity of technology: its propensity to promote certain qualities while sidelining others. McLuhan called this process amplification and amputation. He used the microphone as an example. The microphone can literally amplify one’s voice, but in doing so it reduces the speaker’s need to exercise his own lung power. Thus one’s inner capacities may atrophy.

heartThis phenomenon is of particular concern with children, who are in the process of developing all kinds of inner capacities. Examples abound of technology’s circumventing the developmental process: the student who uses a spell checker instead of learning to spell, the student who uses a calculator instead of learning to add–young people sacrificing internal growth for external power.

Often, however, this process is not so easily identified. An example is the widespread use of computers in pre-schools and elementary schools to improve sagging literacy skills. What could be wrong with that? Quite a bit, if we consider the prerequisites to reading and writing. We know that face-to-face conversation is a crucial element in the development of both oral and written communication skills. On the one hand, conversation forces children to generate their own images, which provide connections to the language they hear and eventually will read. This is one reason why reading to children and telling them stories is so important. Television and computers, on the other hand, generally require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images.”

I wonder how Monke would respond to this recent television advertisement to promote an Indian mobile communications company, which plays with the concept of a born-digital baby.

I believe that Monke is setting up a false dichotomy here, and that developing children need a balance in their lives between technology-enhanced learning and healthy physical activity, wherever possible in an outdoor environment. Nor do I accept that television and computers ‘require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images’. What they require is that the viewer has the literacy skills necessary to understand how, why, when, where and by whom the images were created, and most importantly the purpose for which they were designed – in other words, that they learn to become digitally literate. However, in the interests of fairness, I will leave the final word on the matter (for now) to Monke, who is ready for the ‘all about balance’ argument;

“The response that I often hear to this criticism–that we just need to balance computer use in school with more ‘hands-on’ activities (and maybe a little character education)–sounds reasonable. Certainly schools should help young people develop balanced lives. But the call for balance within schools ignores the massive commitment of resources required to make computers work at all and the resultant need to keep them constantly in use to justify that expense. Furthermore, that view of balance completely discounts the enormous imbalance of children’s lives outside of school. Children typically spend nearly half their waking life outside of school sitting in front of screens. Their world is saturated with the artificial, the abstract, the mechanical. Whereas the intellectual focus of schools in the rural society of the 19th century compensated for a childhood steeped in nature and concrete activity, balance today requires a reversal of roles, with schools compensating for the overly abstract, symbolic, and artificial environment that children experience outside of school.”

Footnote:

It would appear, from what I have learned this week, that in a recent blogpost, The Power To Make A Difference, I was espousing Aloni’s fourth form of humanistic education, that which is most often identified with Radical Education or Critical Pedagogy and with the counter-hegemonic pedagogical theories of Freire, Apple, Giroux, Simon, and Kozol. From this vantage point, to consider educational issues independent of the larger cultural, social, and economic context involves either serious ignorance or cynical, if not criminal, deception. Poverty, crime, homelessness, drug addiction, wars, ecological crises, suicide, illiteracy, discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, technocratic consciousness, and the disintegration of communities and families, to name some of our most pressing problems, are facts of life that effect directly the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral development of the great majority of children in our culture. Hence, radical educators argue, ‘pedagogy should become more political and the political more pedagogical’. This implies three major changes in our educational system. It requires:

  • that educational discourse, policy, and practice would deal directly with the notions of power, struggle, class, gender, resistance, social justice, and possibility;
  • that teachers would aim to emancipate and empower their students towards the kind of critical consciousness and assertive point of view that allows people to gain control over their lives; and
  • that teachers, in the words of Giroux, ‘would struggle collectively as transformative intellectuals. . . to make public schools democratic public spheres where all children, regardless of race, class, gender, and age, can learn what it means to be able to participate fully in the ongoing struggle to make democracy the medium through which they extend the potential and possibilities of what it means to be human and to live in a just society.’