The learning cycle and the power of asynchronous learning activities

When grappling with the concept of learning I often talk about the importance of reflection.  However, another key concept is asynchronicity (I'm not entirely sure that's a word).  I've reflected on this previously within Asynchronous = Time and Space Learning.  In that post I talked about how learning is more likely to occur when given time and space.  I wanted to tease this out a bit more in relation to learning itself.

Learning is hard, really hard.  It's a skill just to recognise when it's happening and cultivate it effectively.  Often, the pain associated with it is viewed negatively.  But the pain needs to gritted out because this is an important stage of the process.  Marilyn Taylor characterised learning as a continuous process of disorientation, exploration, reorientation and equilibrium (see p53 of this).  It's a cycle and the desired state is multiple loops through the cycle.  For every stage the flexibility, time and space offered by asynchronous learning activities is preferable to a purely synchronous involvement from formal education.  Of course, for synchronous learning events you always have the time afterwards to reflect.  But if you have a formal learning experience where everything is synchronous, the asynchronous times the learner has alone are not facilitated, not supported and without structured communication or collaboration when they need it the most.  You may be thinking "so what" but this is the point of formal education - to structure, facilitate and, in some senses, manufacture the learning.  When you structure in asynchronous learning activities through the various guises of learning technology tools and carefully facilitate such activities the stages of Taylor's cycle are given the best chance of being rowed through by the learner.  It's easy for learners to capsize in the first time they encourage the disorientation stage and they'll keep doing this every time they encounter it.  Pretty soon they shy away from the mental states associated with the learning cycle.  

I think this has contributed to the a vast mass of humans who don't really know how to learn properly.  They grew up on a diet of synchronous learning and the difficult process of moving through the learning cycle wasn't supported in any way.  The tragedy is they carry it through their adult life and have trouble becoming lifelong learners thus inhibiting their potential.  I am still honing my learning skills but I keep trying and am able to support the process through various social media tool (like this one).  BTW, learning overall is great.  The "ah ha" moments are worth the pain.  It's a bit like going for a run but that metaphor can wait for another posting. 

A couple of asterisks to this post.  There is, of course, a lot of literature out there on learning theories and models.  For this post, I chose one that describe a process I recognise.  Also, the statement: "there are vast mass of humans who don't really know how to learn" is based on anecdotal evidence.  I think I have a somewhat informed decision but would welcome insights from others on this.

Choosing social media/web 2.0 tools for use in teaching and learning

Originally published on ETC Journal.

Connecting formal education to social media/web 2.0 tools is a relatively new area. Educational institutions hope that by purchasing a virtual learning environment (VLE) all of their learning technology needs will be met. However, the world moves fast, and some educators find that our suite of communication and collaboration tools doesn’t cater to our teaching and learning needs as well as they might. Interestingly, VLEs are usually more suited to managing rather than learning (but that’s for another day). So there is an argument for looking outside of the VLE to expand and enhance our options for engaging students in learning activities using technology.
When it comes to thinking about social media or web 2.0 tools, we are looking at tapping into the affordances such tools have towards communication and collaboration. There’s a creative process involved in this, and it takes time, space and a certain amount of risk. However, it’s worth exploring if you want to keep developing as an educator and are always looking to improve the learner experience.

Usually the stimulus for such a process comes from seeing or hearing about a particular tools used in a particular context. In these instances, the process is focused and relatively easy. However, what if you want to explore for yourself what’s out there and make informed decisions on what tool to use?

Firstly, it’s useful to have in mind a set of criteria like the Sloan Consortium’s:
  • Access
  • Usability
  • Privacy & Intellectual Property
  • Workload & Time Management
  • Fun Factor
Visit the weblink above for details on this.

What I’ll do in this post is reflect on the stages I go through when scoping our internet-based tool for teaching and learning. I’ve split it into different stages of the process:

What type of tool?

If you have no idea what’s available then you’ll probably need to talk to someone in the know. This will give you a starting point. From here, it’s about finding what this tool does and how that can be applied to learning. So for a mindmap, it’s about creating mindmaps for brainstorming, visualisation, reflection. You’ll notice that it’s not one simple concept here and it rarely is. What’s important is that you know what you want to use it for, choose a tool which is suited to this task and can articulate this clearly to the learners. Confusion can occur with tools that could conceivable perform a large variety of functions. Any collaborative document tool like google docs could be used for a multitude of learning activities. As long as you are clear about how you want the learners to engage in a tool and why, you’ll be OK. Just make sure you are not shoe-horning an activity into a tool that isn’t well suited to it. This process is about finding the best fit. For example, I could conceivably use a group blog for an asynchronous discussion. However, for this learning activity, I might be better off using a message board, a discussion forum embedded within a VLE or social network.

Scoping out tools?

The next step is to choose the particular instance of the chosen tool. For this, you need to scope out the available tools. This is something I do a lot. It isn’t an exact science, and you have to be aware that there will always be good ones you’ll miss. In fact, the hard part is finding the time every few month to find new instances that spring up. Also, in the fickly web 2.0 world, tools come and go so you need to check for disappearances — you usually get warning on this.

I like to start with sites that already scope out tools for educational use — Free Technology for Teachers and Richard Byrne’s Favorite Tech Resources for Teachers. There’s also Robin Good’s Best Online Collaboration Tools 2011, but there’s a lot of rubbish there, and it can be difficult to load up and navigate. What I want to avoid is googling. Although it’s not to be ruled out, you want to start from an informed place rather than a random one.

So what should you be looking for?

Cost: The first thing I look for is cost. Commercial products are a no-no for me. I want to recommend free tools where I can. Sometimes minimal cost tools are OK, but anything more than a few pounds/dollars is ruled out. When it comes to internet-based tools for use in teaching and learning, starting off by paying lots of money isn’t necessary. You can often tell by the look and feel of a commercial website. They will have pricing or product as one of their main pages and will often be aimed at businesses. Most tools will have different levels based on cost. If the lowest level is a free version, then it’s worth investigating. This is especially true if there’s a free upgrade for education. Free tools aren’t necessarily amateur looking, but there will be more variety in their layout.

Trying it out: The next thing is to try it out. Good tools will allow you to try it out quickly and easily. Ideally, there will be a video explaining and showing the features on the front page. Watch this first. This way you can decide quickly whether to dismiss it or not. It’s vital that you record the process you go through when you first start testing something. Answer for yourself questions like:
  • How intuitive is it?
  • How many stages are there?
  • How easy are key functions?
  • Does it do what I want it to?
  • Is the language and terminology they use right for my context?
  • How much learning would it take for learners to work it out?
  • How does it look, and is this what I had in mind?

The hard part of this is judging whether your learners will have the same experience as you did when trying the tool. My advice would be: Don’t assume anything. A simple process that you were able to move through easily can derail an entire course if taken for granted. I know, I’ve seen it. I’m blessed with an inability to pick things up quickly. This gives me little scope for assuming too much. Providing a three minute screencast can go a long way. The quick learner can simply skip this.

Usually by playing around for a few minutes you get a feel for whether this could work for you. If you are scoping a few services, make a note of them (better still bookmark them) and move on. It’s common to not find anything you really want so you use the best you can find.

It’s worth mentioning the importance of account creation. You should always bear in mind that you want to keep additional logins for your students to a minimium. In this regard, tools embedded within the VLE will always win. However, you’ll be looking outside the VLE for tools that have no internal equivalent. Some tools can be used without creating an account, but most will require it. I’m talking here about communication/collaboration tools that require students to become actively engaged. If the tools are educationally inclined, they may allow the educator to create accounts for a group of students (e.g., Diigo).

For content creation tools like Prezi, only you will have to create an account and simply share/embed the results. You can usually get away with asking students to create one or two accounts on particular tools if the reasons and the benefits are clear. Anything more than that isn’t advisable. In general, account creation is getting easier with possible links to existing accounts you might have (like google). Be careful about linking with social networking accounts like facebook. I advise against it. It blurs the boundaries between the professional and the social. When it comes to using a social network service as the hub of activity, I prefer to go down the Ning or Grouply route rather than Facebook.

A process that needs investigating is the interaction between two instances of the same tool if this is what you want to realise in practice. Most of the time you can test this out yourself on the same machine, but you might need to use different machines or even involve another person. I am often employing different email accounts so that I can create different accounts on the same tool. I have one or two emails that only really get used for this purpose.

If you get to the stage where you think you’ve found something to use, you’ll need to try it out for real, hopefully with a friendly test audience. How it interacts with your VLE needs careful thought. A lot depends on how much you use your institution’s online environment currently and what its capabilities are. It might be as simple as providing a weblink with words around it. If you’re lucky, you can embed it somewhat. What’s important here is to think through what process/navigational support you need to provide. For a tool type that is new, you’ll need to clearly describe how you expect the learner will engage with the tool, with the other learners and to what end. So it’s more than explaining where to click. It’s about purpose and learning outcomes.

I hope this rambling rundown gives some insight into the process of scoping out and choosing an internet-based tool for teaching and learning. As always, I find it personally useful to articulate my thoughts in this way

Institutional E-learning Strategy

I've been thinking about the basic strategy for an individual, group or institutional with their online learning design.  Trying to draw together all the principles, processes and techniques I recommend.  To plan strategically, think about the following.
Essentially, what you want to do is:

1. raise knowledge/understanding of the various online learning activity tools

2. educate staff about the design process itself

3. illuminate for them the strategic issues that need addressing in their context

And then:

4. work with them, guide them through a real learning design process.

What you often get is just the first of these points together with offers to help with the last point. The other points might be addressed in passing but often don't get enough attention. It's about educating before direct assistance in an actual process.
Now more on each of these points.

1. Knowledge of tools

This is knowing about how to use any online tool.  For a learning technologist, you want to do more than just demonstrating navigation. You want to help them understand how they can be used, how they are commonly used, show working examples, decontextualised templates, pedagogical affordances etc.

2. The design process

Educating about the design process is about:
  • getting people to think in terms of time periods
  • making judgements of teaching hours and learning hours
  • ensuring understanding of asynchronous/synchronous and how to handle the different types of activities
  • promotion of a scaffolded learning process
  • Establish the basic building blocks of bespoke content and learning activities
  • For content, raise awareness of the various types of media they can use for content
  • For activities, explain what the tools are (this could include 1)
  • Explain how assessment can be linked.
3. Strategy
  • You want to think clearly about the rationale for altering your mode of delivery. Are you looking to open out into new markets? Are you looking to improve engagement through more flexible access? Whatever the rationale makes sure it’s clearly understood by everyone.
  • Articulate your timeframes both for the design process and the course itself
  • Identify and involve people that will teach on the course. Large-scale you need to organise a tutor training programme. This would involve raising knowledge/understanding of any online tools used and information about the learning design.
  • It’s at this point you broach contextual cans of worms that needs talking about so they don't become elephants in the room. You would work hard in advance to talk about ways through these issues. The difficulty in HE is opening cans of worms that often fall across departments or even between departmental responsibilities. Engaging with marketing, engaging with IT, engaging with registration, engaging with assessment/exam boards, broaching issues such as academics time and space to design learning. A consultation role would highlight potential areas for scrutiny.

4. Doing the design

This is best done in face-to-face meetings with the individual or group designing the course.  Having the knowledge/understanding from 1-3 could mean they can undertake this alone but it's preferable for a learning technology type person to be present.
So how are 1-3 realised?

Face-to-face sessions
Common are events about particular tools, technologies explaining how, why and, if you're lucky, in what way you can use it. Now you need these. But be careful that this isn't all you do. Just doing this reinforces misconceptions about it just being about the technology. Sessions about 2 and 3 are desirable but rare (I do these). Pedagogically, I favour hands on workshop, and collaborate teaching involving activities and discussions.

It's common for institutional initiatives promoting blended/purely online learning to make stuff/make artifacts for people to engage with on their own: Stuff like advice documents, templates, case studies, videos, screencasts etc. I could talk about which ones I favour and the work I've done in this area. I worry about Institutional strategies which just do this and move on. Just as you would in an online learning activity, you need to support the process by helping staff one on one and in groups engage with any artifacts created.  This is to help them contextualise the artifact.  Without this process they are meaningless.

In an ideal world you would have an:

All emcompassing face-to-face event
If you're lucky, you can get design teams in a room at the same time with time and space to first learn and then to practice or actually do their own learning design. Effective strategies from the research include Leicester's carpe diem initiative which involved having a captive audience for multiple days. Essentially, this allows you to take people through a learning journey from start to finish then do so on this subject. Within such events you could engage in a variety of teaching methods to iteratively teach or facilitate the learning of the 3 main points. You could introduce and facilitate engagement with any artifacts you've created. All this before guiding teams of people of people through a design process whilst the learning is still fresh in their memories.

Finally a point about motivation.  A lot depends on the backing of the senior management. Not just hollow words, but financial commitment and resources. It's difficult to engage the majority of academics in blended/distance learning in their teaching and learning help of this kind would show that they are putting their money where their mouth is. It’s also important to utilize the trailblazers, peers who can show what they are doing and give validity to what’s new to others.

The difference between asynchronous and synchronous learning activities

A few points on this subject as I return from holiday.

Synchronous is what we are used to, it's what learners know and expect. For learners with a history of success in the formal education system, it works just fine. To articulate how asynchronous learning activities can work well, you need to highlight the breathing space such activities afford the learner when gathering their thoughts before they express themselves. Asynchronous is about time periods lasting days not hours.  This could be exemplified using online discussion where you are engaging with the content and other participants.  Through a dialogue, the learner's views are challenged and their own views get refined.  This is learning and learning is hard.  For me, an asynchronous context gives this process more chance of success. This is because the learner can engage in an iterative process of thinking, articulating (usually through writing text) and refining their views.  Thinking about a journal, blog type of asynchronous tool, you have more engagement with the content/own experiences than other participants.

It's important when thinking about asynchronous/synchronous learning activities to acknowledge the importance of being comfortable in the mode of learning the learner's find themselves in. Of course, I am well disposed and well used to learning asynchronous online. Many are not for various reasons. Whatever the reason, good practice involves process/navigation support where process support means how a learner should engage with the activity. You could also call this pedagogical support - how to engage pedagogically in what is usually a collaborative ethos. In a sweep of research I did earlier this year, a theme that came through strongly was the importance of learning how to learn. Online, its a misconception that the technology is the main stumbling block. This is wrong, it's the collaborative pedagogical design learners can't handle. This is because they don't know how to learn this way as they are not used to it.

Social Media: Personal Learning: Practical guidance on how to do this - Planning/Brainstorming a session idea

In the post Social Media Supporting teacher CPD - 2 I talked about an idea for a session designed to give educators practical guidance on how to use social media for their learning. It would sit alongside 21st century tools for teaching and learning which I run about internet-based tools for use in teaching and learning. The rationale is that if educators start using social media for themselves and find value in this process they will naturally start thinking about how to use it within their teaching. It's a logical train of thought. It's difficult for educators to use tools in their teaching which have no relation to everyday practice. Part of this is to do with the dominance of sterile VLE features which look like they belong in 1995. But it's more about the concept of communicating in a fashion alien to them.
I've fleshed this out a bit more in the above mindmap and divided it into personal and collaborative. The key with this type of session is making sense of these tools, stating clearly what they offer in their context and talking about it in types of activity rather than tool names. The aim is to reach those who don't have a clue, don't know where to start. The great mass of educators who are left behind and annoyed that no one is telling how to make sense of it all in easy to understand terms. Papers like tweeting for teachers won't have an impact without sustained initiatives of this type. I guess I'm trying to fill this gap albeit in a very small way.
Under personal I've got:

Knowledge seeking - micro-blog searching, browsing, slideshare - this is about the process of finding relevant information. Once you have your twitter people nicely followed and RSS feeds set up, it's just a matter of tweaking. However, if you start from scratch it's difficult to know where to start. I'll have to think about how best to advice on this because learning technology information flies out and grabs you. Other subject matter might well be different. There'll be information here on browsing too.
Knowledge storing - rss, twitter, social bookmarking - about storing the stuff you find by twitter following, rss and bookmarking. I could also talk about cloud storage here but this might not fit very well.

Note taking and highlighting - the various social media options for this activity which many would do by pen or word processing. So this would include tools like evernote, bounce, diigo, also I'll need to check out stand alone highligher tools. I used to use awesome highlighter but I'm sure there are better examples. I'm looking at website notetaking and dedicated notes tools like evernote which I use and like.
Brainstorming - This one's easy - mindmapping tools principally but I could also do drawing tools and things like thoughtbox and other task management tools.
Written Reflection - The culmination of everything for me is to blog and reflect.

I could take participants on a journey by creating an account in google and then proceed to create and practice using areas for all the aggregation and sense making areas. It might be that a half day session on the personal side of things would be enough for one learning experience.

However, if I wanted to go further and teach about collaborative learning in relationship to educator peer communication/collaboration, I would cover:

Synchronous Discussion: chat tools like titanpad or
Aynchronous Discussion: I'm not clear yet how this could run. I want to teach educators that, by engaging in discussion with peers they can learn lots. So it's about finding peer networks and having those discussions. More thinking to be done here on how best to teach this.
Collaborative document/text creation: Wikis and tools like google docs. Combination tools like google hangout need to be investigated.
Sharing: Sharing is one of those activities which don't seem valuable until you do it. So talking about the sharing ethos via twitter/slideshare/blogging with focus on twitter.
• Group creation: Covering the ability to create private social network for groups using tools like google sites, ning, grouply etc.

That's enough detail for talking about it to my colleagues (and specifically my boss). I would only need to prepare properly if it were to run. No doubt I'll reflect on it here if that's occurs.

Social Media Supporting teacher CPD - 3

More on Tweeting for Teachers although it's more using it as a launchpad for my own reflections.

National and local policymakers should:

1.  publish guidelines and support for teachers and leaders to help them use social 
media in schools;
There are various social media strategies out there.  The emphasis should be on the potential for teaching and learning.  Most guidelines I've seen are about control and read like rules and regulations which put teachers off and fit with the "danger" ethos as its mantra.  It's true that to write informed guidelines about potential for the various types of tools but it doesn't have to be detailed just give encouragement and a green light to this area.  I drafted some guidelines myself which hopefully will be used by my institution in the future.  I share them here for anyone to look at.

2. consider how they will begin to unfilter social media sites for use in schools;
Consider!  Just do it.  It highlights a contradiction in the way we educate.  In formal education it's necessary to control communication - quiet in class, no chatting, pay attention.  Social media is extra communication channels.  So we control it.  The problem is we need to use them for teaching and learning.  Banning social media is like banning talking in schools.  Sure you have to control inappropriate use but we cut off all that learning potential by banning it.

3.  recognise and celebrate self-directed professional learning by teachers using 
online tools, and the role of social media in this learning;
Building a culture where this is valued is important.  There are lots out there but they are isolated and poorly known in the mainstream.

4. create a common online space where the whole education community can find each other;
This is a bit vague and I have visions of a controlled, unwielding space with poor usability if something is done at a national level.  In the case study about Edubuzz, I was hoping for some information about how to do this for myself because it's this kind of purposeful initiative that I could see working for groups of schools.

5. ensure that all Initial Teacher Training courses demonstrate a strong focus on the use of social media tools for ongoing professional development.
Yes, make this law.  Can't see this happening any time soon.

Social Media Supporting teacher CPD - 2

This post continues discussing the newly released report Tweeting for teachers.  They list 5 recommendations for school leaders and 5 for policy makers.  My first thought is how many school leaders will read this?  Probably very few unless they have a strategy for promoting it beyond a website.  I'll discuss each recommendation which you can read about on p30-33:

1.  School leaders should learn about and engage with the social platforms that their teachers, parents and pupils are using every day;
Yes, indeed.  The idea that springs into my mind is that what we need to do is get teachers in general using social media for themselves.  By using it for themselves ideas will spark about how they can use it in their teaching.  Trying to teach using something alien to the rest of their lives isn't easy but this is what we are often asking them to do.  Social media are ways of communicating, they are new communication channels.  Ways of communicating SHOULD be of interest to us in education.
The logical next step for me is to try and conceive of a training event which caters for this need.  This could be a sister session to my 21st century tools for teaching and learning session and would concentrate on how educators can use social media for themselves, in their own learning.  This would also fit nicely with the sentiment of this report.
As a bullet point to this recommendation, there is the old chestnut of justifying them using these tools themselves to understand the kids' world.  I remember saying this to National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) participants 10 years ago.  It's true enough but many argue against it.  Practicing what you preach applies and it all comes down to a human beings unwillingness to learn after a certain age.  It's incredible how many resist it.

2. School leaders should use a social media tool as part of their communications with the school
This would be a good way of establishing it's validity.  The problem is that the only relationship much of social media has with formal education is to be banned, it's associated with negative things.
  You have to stick your head above the paraphet to alter this.

3. validate and support their staff in using social media tools for ongoing professional development;
This is a positive strategic move which also give the mode validity for learning.  This could start with one tool that some people have good experiences and understanding of within the school or institution.

4. turn online activity into offline actions, in order to harness the benefits of face-to-face interaction alongside those of online interaction;
This is about using technology within the classroom.  Tablets will impact on this in the future.  However, this is whole new area in itself.  In the classroom or for homework there is scope for both but shouldn't be blurred together as both need carefully planned learning design.

5. implement robust systems for evaluating the impact of CPD on teacher effectiveness and student outcomes
No comment on this one.

The next post will consider the recommendations for policy makers.

Social media supporting teachers CPD

A fews days ago I went to an interesting event promoting a new report published by the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning here in London.  It is called:  Tweeting for teachers; how can social media support teacher professional development?  I'm going to use it to reflect on the social media and education.

I'm going to give detailed analysis of the parts that interested me to help me reflect and articulate my thinking.

Overall, it's a useful and worthwhile read but it promises more than it delivers.  The overall message is noble and it could act as a inspirational call-to-arms for educators to start investigating social media. I saw some of this at the event and I hope the message can reach out there.  The recommendations are sounds although a little obvious.  There are also some interesting case studies about initiatives I wasn't aware of.  There is a deliberate link to teachers' CPD which is good and the review of research is interesting.  However, there's a distinct lack of 'how to'.  More on this later.

Firstly, the event I attended was well organised and free.  Their #tweetingforteachers worked well as they had dedicated people looking after it.  I ended up participating quite a lot as things occurred to me.  The usefulness of micro-blogging to facilitate communicate in events cannot be disputed.  It's a pity they didn't have the stream setup on the screen but there was a fair bit of interaction.  It helped that I got a good 3G connection.  Interestingly, most delegates didn't participate in this showing how far we have to go.

Next, the title - tweeting for teachers.  I don't like this.  It's catchy yes but it's a marketing phrase which is misleading as the overall scope of the report is social media. It's true that lots of the examples were about twitter but if the report wants to be about social media in general then it's not an appropriate title.  Tweeting for teacher is a great title if you were to extrapolate the bits about twitter and add practical guidance on the processes involved in twitter.

Overall, it's a report that can only scratch the surface of this subject.  Social media is a huge, huge area.  In a 36 page report it's not going to happen.  Also, the contexts with which it can be used a numerous.  The case studies consist of 3 people that blog and tweet for their own learning, a local authority blogging facility that worked well, a video competition, #ukedchat and Teachmeet.  Of these, #ukedchat and Teachmeet are the most inspirational.  They are both established synchronous events which can be engaged in.  The others are interesting but they would benefit from guidance on how to act if you're inspired to setup something similar.  Also, where are the dynamic image creation and sharing tools, the video creation, use of audio, mindmapping tools, social bookmarking, multimedia posters, social networking/group sites etc.  I worry about teachers will read this report and think that the case studies cover everything that's possible.

Finally for this post - categorisation.  with some about self-directed learning and personal learning networks and others about sharing, reflective learning and still others about synchronous event, the report is crying out for careful categorisation so that content is made "meaningful to teachers and manageable within the context of teaching practice."(p20 of this report).

This is the massive gap we have in education with learning technologies.  We have to make things easier for our teachers and academics.  We need to show them how and in their context.  Something like and are more useful in this regard.  There is a wealth of policy advice and a wealth of how to use tools advice but it's the middle ground of putting it in our context which is lacking.  I believe that largely teachers can do this for themselves but only if we promote and facilitate it.

In my next post, I'll reflect on the key recommendations from this report.

Externalisation of pedagogic principles

“The first step in redesign often entailed the externalisation of pedagogic principles which had previously been tacit."
This quote is from report on the PREEL (From Pedagogical Research to Embedded E-learning) project which ran at the Institute of Education a few years ago. It was one of those initiative which tried to help educators with their e-learning design. Interestingly, there were deliberate attempts to link research and practice through the promotion and incorporation of IOE's own e-learning research output.  This post and the above quote is about educator knowledge of their own pedagogy, the way they teach.

The quote promotes the tactic of asking educators to verbalise how they are teaching a particular course.  In articulating this out loud it helps clarify for themselves how they teach.  We are not talking learning theory here just how they do things.  For some how a session is structured and taught may have evolved over the years.  A particular educator may have a natural default pedagogical stance and the reasons why are not clear even to themselves.

I've talked in the past about how some educators don't have an understanding of their own pedagogy stance or indeed an understanding of pedagogical theory in general.  I've speculated that this hinders moves to talk about internet-based communication/collaboration tools in terms of pedagogical affordance.  The above tactic is instructive because it suggests that this doesn't really matter as the knowledge is there albeit latent and not externalised.  It's your job (as a learning technologist) to bring this out of them.  They know how they teach and why they do it.  And you don't need to be judgmentally about this, you just need to listen and teach them how, and to what end, they could use what's available.  What this also says is that it's not about lack of understanding, it's about lack of time and sometimes about lack of learning design.  For the former, an educator doesn't have the time to think about their learning design.  They are too busy. For the latter, they can't be bothered.  This is rare but there's good and bad in every profession.

Asynchronous = Time and space learning

A common topic of conversation amongst educators when discussing learning technologies is the time and space they need to find out about the various tools in the VLE and redesign their courses.  It is no secret that in my context of HE time and space is sadly lacking.  What they are saying is that they need time and space to learn.  Online, many of the standard communication/collaboration tools available to educators are best used asynchronously.  Asynchronous learning activities are time and space learning activities.  Well designed courses using such tools to scaffold students' learning through a series of activities which give them time for reflection, time for critical thinking, time for articulation and clarification.  The communication can, therefore, be more meaningful and of a better quality all round.  Within the sessions, within any synchronous learning event, the quality of any dialogue is compromised by the immediacy of the responses.  There can be little time for reflection in such an environment.  Some cope better than others with this but overall it's just not as good.  I should put potentially at the end of this of course as other factor impact on the learning.  But, in essence, the potential for critical thinking and deep learning is better within asynchronous learning activities because...

Asynchronous = time and space learning.

Wordcloud of my blog

I've updated the word cloud of this blog which you can see in the column on the right. It's interesting to see how things have changed over the last four months from:


Although things are largely the same, the biggest word is now learning whereas previously it was tools.  There's also evidence of my reflections on activity templates and recent learning design teaching sessions I've been running.

One question I'm asking myself is:

Does this word cloud give a fair reflection of my role as an E-learning Manager?
(for the London Centre for Leadership in Learning (LCLL), Institute of Education (IOE)) 

The answer is probably not.  I reflect on what's interested me from what I've been reading and what's been challenging me and been valuable learning experiences in my job.  The mundane stuff doesn't get in there like the setting up of online course areas and the repeated process/navigation demonstrations.  E-learning/learning technology jobs are about maintaining and setting up structures and systems and negotiating opportunities and events where you can show that you can offer much more than this.  For me, I've done this by setting up sessions on Web 2.0 technologies and online learning design.  Showing people how to use a particular VLE tools is the halfway house between the two extremes.  It's ostensibly about process but you can shoehorn in pedagogy if you careful about it.

A VLE is like a gym membership - bought for show and used by a handful

Breaking off from my previous train of thought....

A VLE is like a gym membership - bought for show and only properly used by a handful of hardy souls.

For a few years now the Virtual Learning Environment is a must have for any self-respecting educational institution. For HEs, it's a behemoth of a walled garden where integration with registration and administrative systems takes more time and effort than the teaching and learning integration it's supposed to be about. The use is patchy at best. It's like a gym membership. Both are purchased with the best intentions. There is recognition that change is necessary for proper and fulfilling use. However, this recognition is tacit at best and romantic at worst. Realisation and readily to change the culture of your organisation or the way you live you life is often lacking. When the turmoil of such change comes into view the hard decisions are shied away from and the status quo continues with minor aberrations.

This metaphor just about works, but what's the point of it. It's useful to think about how HE is approaching the use of learning technologies. Where this metaphor is useful is that it highlights how institutions like to play up their use of technology without really understanding or intending to enact the changes necessary to realise what they say is happening or will happen.

Aiding online learning design - more thoughts....

I'm often engaged in the business of breaking things down for academic colleagues so that the process of designing an online learning course seems less challenging. Sometimes it feels like I'm going against the grain a bit and distilling the academic rigour of the e-learning research that I read and hear about. Actually, its more than a feeling, its a reality and a deliberate policy. I do this because its needed. Its needed for the great mass of educators not convinced by the virtues of teaching and learning using internet-based technology. The hard part is to distill and not water down or dumb down. The aim is for simplicity or to explain in simple terms that which can be seen as too complex and unwielding.

I've blogged previously about example activities templates which I've started using in face-to-face training to give educators a starting point when engaged in designing learning activities using the standard VLE communication/collaboration tools. These templates are as simple and succinct as I can possibly get them. This is one part of process.

Another stage would be to aid educators with a process that is commonly faced - using a face-to-face course design to design a purely online version of the same course. Here you have a starting point, you have content, you have knowledge and understanding of how you taught in each face-to-face session but how would you engage students in the same way online. This is where I will develop ideas. The concepts are simple - discuss face-to-face - discuss online. For those in the know this is simple. For those with no experience and don't really want to do it in the first place, I could support the process by describing the process. More to follow....

Example Learning Activities on VLE Communication/Collaboration tools

Various initiative this year have led me to one point - the production of example learning activities using the main communication/collaboration tools available in the standard Virtual Learning Environment.

I've often had cause to reflect on the merits of the abstract vs the practical. I've been reading an interesting article by Laurillard and Ljubojevic (2011) called Evaluating learning designs through the formal representation of pedagogical patterns. They talk about it in terms of finding a middle ground between learning theory and learning design patterns. The former is seen as too abstract for practical use and the latter as too specific for widespread adaptation. They are engaged in the LDSE project which should be a very good, well thought through online tool to be used by educators when designing learning. This Learning Design Support Environment (which I have been privileged to see early versions of) is careful to make explicit reference to learning theory. It is a commendable attempt that establishing a link between research and practice. Such an endeavour is worth pursuing.

My output in this area is similiar but less sophisticated and less ambitious. What I have composed are short, succinct examples of learning activities using a particular communication/collaboration online tool. For example, re. an asynchronous discussion tool:

Simple Concept Discussion
What do you understand the term xxxx to mean? Please share your thoughts within this Discussion activity. This is principally a dialogue between you and your fellow students so please ensure you visit and contribute at least three times in the two week period.

& re. a blog tool:

Reflection on learning Blog activity 2
It’s time to consolidate your learning within this session. Reflect on this statement xxxx and then write down your thoughts in a blog entry. Your tutor will give you some feedback in the comments area of this entry at the end of the session.
This could be a recurring activity.

I have a few or these for discussion, blogs, wikis and e-portfolios. These are presented within the context of Salmon's 5 stage model as it's important to present a scaffolded learning experience. The aim is to give example wordings for a learning activities using the common tools encountered in standard VLEs. I have decontextualised them as far as I can. Previously, I had produced templates which included lots more detail. This has now been stripped back so that they are as simple as they can be.

Theory-laden time consuming resources are readily available and under utilised by the great mass of academic colleagues not well disposed towards learning technologies. I see a need for something that engaging them in a different way. In a way that make things as easy as possible for them. I haven't ignored theory but I have deliberately excluded references to it. It's a can of worms I want to keep shut unless specifically asked for (it rarely is). So I am basically saying - you can use this tool like this, and this and this. And I'm saying with an actual wording that can be utilized. This is less threatening and less challenging that framing it within a learning theory or a abstract statement about a type of activity use.

As yet, I have only had a chance to use them within a single face-to-face training day. It went well and I hope to do more this term. I may reflect further on this here.

Designing and Teaching an Online Course

The title of this post is the title of a consultancy one-day session I ran on 22nd July. Once I'd convinced the client that such a course would be good for their trainers as they looked to develop blended and purely online learning, I relaxed thinking that running it would be simply about bringing everything together from my working practices. This is largely what I did but it was harder than I thought.

To suggest that you can teach everything there is to know about designing and teaching an online course is ridiculous. What to leave out and what to focus on is the challenge. I decided to present via prezi again so that I could create a coherent structure to help participant get a broad picture of events. Using images and much, much more zooming gave me a better quality outcome than previously but it there's still a way to go with my proper use of this canvas presentation tool. The fruits of my labour can be found here: I also did a powerpoint backup with all the same words. This was valuable on the day when I changed the order around somewhat. I've not achieved a neat and tidy framework yet which really justifies the use of prezi quite to the extent I wanted. However, I still think there was added value doing it this way.

The main sections were:

- Strategic decision to make before the design process

- Structural points

- Scaffolding frameworks

- Discussions

- Blogs

- Wikis

- E-portfolios

- Webinars

I organised the bulk of the day around the above 5 communication/collaboration tools. which are common to most VLEs. It wasn't about usability but providing them with example activity types which were context free. For each tool I composed about 12 and presented them on individual small bits of paper. I then had them marry up each activity to a phase in the scaffolding process of the Salmon model as a small group activity (I nearly went with Walmsley's Best practice model). I thought it useful to give them this as a launchpad for discussion or to provide some structure if discussion was struggling. It proved successful in that for the later ones they were less interested in marrying up with scaffolding phases and more interested in talking about the tool and it's possible uses. This is what I wanted and it worked well. I have already agreed with the client that next time we will have the bits of paper laminated and more neatly presented.

In addition to the above, I did a slot on e-facilitation where I presented some actual examples of facilitation in asynchronous discussion and got them to critique. I've done this before and it's worked well both times.

I had a few other subject up my sleeve but only got a chance to do the ones on mindmapping, social bookmarking and glogster. For the latter two it was simply mentioning and showing them. For mindmapping I gave out some guidance and had a discussion but not using the same format as the other tools discussed.

At the end, I had them have a go at structuring a session or course and give them a context they were all familiar with. None of the groups really stuck to this brief but there discussions were still on topic and there was some good good feedback.

Overall, I'm pleased with how things went. But there are bits to work on:

- I wanted a freeness to the discussions around each tool and this is what I got but I should perhaps think about more specific topics to feed back on. I might also abandon the marrying to Salmon stages and get them to do something else in their small groups.

- Everything needs more time. I felt like I was constantly rushing and that's even after I culled a couple of sections.

- Although this deliberately wasn't a hands on practice type workshop, I need to include some look and feel stuff on the tools which some won't have encountered before. For example, I assumed too much with wikis and ended up showing a couple of working examples when it became clear they didn't really know what a wiki was.

If you look at the prezi be aware that like powerpoint each phrase is a launchpad for me to talk around it, I wouldn't recommend presenting from this without knowing the meaning behind everything.

It's hard to make practical use of pedagogical theories

We want our greater understanding of pedagogy to matter, to make a different. I've been looking closely at different pedagogical theories as part of my studies. It's interesting and challenging in equal measure. But at the back of my mind there's a so what factor which bugs me. In my role, there are very few situations where I can envisage making explicit use of pedagogical theory. Certainly, it's essential to have a good grasp but I want this knowledge to matter at a practical level.

So what are the issues?

The first point would be that they are abstract concepts. Of course they are, this is the point. But thinking about a practical learning design scenario there's a lot the educator has to do to make use of a theory. It's almost as if you read about a theory and then let it subconsciously effect your practice. Basically, the link between theory and practice has to be done by the educator which is a lot of work.

Which theory? Each theory makes it's own claims to get to the essence of learning and how best to teach/facilitate. For the educator, this means some form of value judgement about which to favour. Am I right about this? Certainly, this is how it feels as I read about them. I'm not saying this is bad but it makes it hard for the average educator to make decisions about their own teaching and learning.

Are they really so different? Of course, they are if you have the time to read and reread the important papers concerning each theory. Just reading the highlines can lead to confusing and a sense that some overlap with others. I found that ones with the word construct somewhere in the title take a while to nail as distinct entities.

Research around pedagogy is important and interesting. Long may it continue. But what we need are more conscious effort to make sense, make use and make them matter in the real world of education.

Answers on a postcard.... In my next post I will explore how I'm thinking about making use of the conversational framework to facilitate this process.

Public/Private sector e-learning: the differences

There are different types of e-learning courses. I going to draw a divide between public and private sector courses purely to help my thinking. The divide is, of course, not that simple but it's a useful starting point for this post.

Appearance is the most obvious difference and this is down to money. The content of the private sector world is dynamically displayed, well designed and often involves bespoke video. The interaction is with the software and often restricted to the odd multiple choice instant feedback job. It's mostly about absorbing the content. It's more about web design than learning design. Pedagogy is firmly didactic and pedagogical thought seems lacking.

For the public sector, there is little money to sink into creating content to the same dynamic, multimedia standard. One area I am starting to explore is the easy creation of web content so that educators are less likely to whack on a powerpoint or word document. Making the content bespoke to a purely online course is an important step which many have not taken. The DIY nature means that it seems less valid to just put content up. They need to look good for this to work. Within education, there is unwritten understanding that learning activities are required regardless of this. However, I'm sure some would make do with just providing content if they could. Hiding behind making the content dynamic would make this easier.

Often, people bemoan the poor look and feel of VLEs. This is a fair point when compared to some of the communication/collaboration tools out there. It's not fair, however, if they are comparing to whizzy graphics of an expensively put together e-learning course. Pedagogically, such courses have less going for them even if they look the part.

This is not to suggest that HE online courses have good learning design across the board. Far from it, my job is try and facilitate this process and we have a way to go just to get everyone listening. However, there is conscious effort to make this happen. Private companies who get into e-learning steer clear of the asynchronous learning-type activities because they want to produce a produce and then sell that product. Ongoing costs are not on the agenda and facilitators cost.

A pertinent point to make is that this is largely what the customers want. Learners of all ages are used to being thrown content and then make to make sense of it themselves. They are not clamouring for a scaffolded learning process. They are not used to it and it seems too hard. All the better if the content they are given looks and sounds great.

Overall, there are massive differences with learning activities, software interaction, use of multimedia, look and feel and pedagogical design. My observation for this post is that private companies concentrate creating impressive looking, well designed software and where they produce courses themselves they often don't go much further with the pedagogy. Is this a bad thing? I guess it's just an observation.

Reflections on teaching about Web 2.0 tools

It's been a criminal amount of time since I last blogged. The standard excuse of being busy applies but seems lame as I write it.

Today I want to reflect on some teaching I did on Tuesday, 17th May at the Institute of Education (IOE). It was called 21st century learning: using web 2.0 tools. I usually call this session Web2.0Learning but our marketing people didn't like that and renamed it. This was the first time I've been on the LCLL core events calendar so this was quite a bit deal. By the way, the LCLL - London Centre for Leadership in Learning - is where I work in the IOE.

Web2.0Learning is a day's training that I conceived a couple of years ago to teach educators about the various types of tools freely available 'out there' on the internet. I describe them as 'outside your VLE' tools. I've now delivered it 5 times mostly at the Chartered Institute of Marketing and I've always found it a rewarding experience. Part of the satisfaction comes from the fact that it's inspired and dictated by what I read, learn and reflect about in my personal learning on the blogosphere. It's more of a personal interest than a work chore. Also, it allows me to be creative as I seek to make sense of the different tools and software I encounter and distill it down into coherent messages.

There's lots to reflect on. Firstly, this is the programme I arrived at. When I compare to the last time I did it in July, 2010 there is a much that has changed:

9:30 - 9:45 Welcome and Introductions
9:45 - 10:10 Web 2.0 technologies in education
10:10 - 10:30 Our site/Group creation sites*
10:30 - 10:45 Group notice boards*
10:45 – 11:00 tea/coffee
11:00 – 11:10 Knowledge Building
11:10 – 11:35 Mind mapping*
11:35 – 11:40 Drawing tools*
11:40 – 11:50 Word Clouds*
11:50 – 12:00 Tool exploration*
12:00 – 13:00 Lunch
13:00 – 13:10 Brainstorming
13:10 – 13:25 Which media?
13:25 – 13:45 Creating a narrative
13:45 – 14:00 Collaborative bookmarking*
14:00 – 14:10 Screencasting
14:10 – 14:15 Recording audio
14:15 – 14:30 Break
14:30 – 14:35 Creative commons and copyright
14:35 – 14:50 Blogs/discussions
14:50 – 15:10 Collaborative documents/wikis*
15:10 – 15:15 Selection criteria
15:15 – 15:30 Reflection and discussion

The timings seem precise and weren't kept to as we moved through things quicker than planned. It's difficult to judge but it was useful to plan in this way so I could be clear which tools I was covering and in what order. The * means that we did a hands on practice on an instance of that tool. The purpose was to give an overview of what a particular type of tool is for and how it could be used for teaching and learning. My broad plan from this time was to get more contextual examples of actual use and extract this information into templates which I could talk around. I wasn't able to do this extensively for every tool but there was still lots of ideas for educational use. It was really helpful this time to have assistance from a colleague, Isobel Bowditch. She did some valuable research into some of the tools as we made sense of what's out there and decided what's important.

The first reflection was that it went really well. A positive day with positive feedback - the best I've got so far. I wasn't sure about how school teachers would react to it. On reflection, it has more relevance in this context than in HE and FE as a lot of the more dynamic, creative and fun tools don't seem to appeal the older the context. One important structural point was that I house the weblinks and resources here:

We linked to each example from the site and there are extra links to explore after the day. It's good to have a hub of activity and it allows me to build a resource which I can use again. I've left it open so that they can share it with colleagues. My ethos of sharing knowledge comes from a belief that more good than bad comes from it. I had someone this morning request to use a prezi I've done which is gratifying. The success of the day meant that two more sessions have been pencilled in for the next academic year which means I'll get to update the session again.

The group was mostly ICT co-ordinators and classroom teachers. The ICT folk were really good participants as they sought to incorporate the tools into their thinking. But I'm pleased those less ICT minded found it useful. As I suspected some of the tools were familiar to some of the group but this turned out to be no problem as there was sufficient breadth and variety of topics. I think they liked being given context/explanation before being allowed to practice using a tool. The practice were carefully setup to minimise difficulties. I tried, where possible, not to endorse a particular service and explain why I had chosen what I'd chosen. Primarily I was going for tools which didn't require any account creation, was free to use and had good usability. for example, with mindmapping I chose There are better mindmapping tools out there but they require money and an account to be created so to practice in a controlled environment they are not suitable. BTW, never run a session like this and have them create an account which needs to be validated from an email - it's chaos!

From these principles, I ran the day. I have the following observations about some of the tools:

- Answergarden is a tool where you can ask a question, share the website and get quick feedback in a fun, dynamic way. I found this tool at the last minute, it seems to fit into a bit about brainstorming or generating quick feedback in a fun way so I included it. They liked it a lot and someone discovered that you could create word clouds out of the answers which I hadn't spotted.

- wallwisher and linoit are online noticeboard tools which also hit the spot. They are good tools where account creation is optional. It seems that this kind of quick, interaction, simple and visually impressive tool is right for the schools context. This is unsurprising when you think about it but useful learning for me. I'm sure there is more out there.

- I was almost apologetic in my inclusion of drawing tool, tagging them onto the end of mindmapping bit very briefly. However, they liked this as well which could be linked to the previous point about quick, easy and interactive.

- Collaborative bookmarking was also a winner. I prefer diigo as the educational account allows for bespoke groups to be created and the teacher to create accounts. This is a tool that I will always champion is I think it is under used in education.

- Collaborative documents/wikis - I put these together as they are similar in spirit. For the activity I chose a synchronous collaborative document tool - which worked well. I was right to have this at the end as people had got to know eachother a little bit so were ok with the ability to edit others' words. I nearly did this using a wikispace wiki but I'm glad I didn't now.

- I was unsure about whether to dedicate time to allowing them to explore different web 2.0 tools from the sites I'd linked to which had loads of them categorised, e.g. Best Online Collaboration tools, 2011 and Free Technology for Teachers but this worked well and we ended up giving more time for this.

- Word clouds went down surprisingly well. I've not included these before for some reason. I think I thought everyone already knows about them but I was wrong. Their potential for teaching and learning is perhaps limited but the ease with which they can be created make them worth a look.

- Finally, the section I called Creation a narrative. This is the section that Isobel helped me research. I knew I wanted to do something around cartooning/comic strip software and photo/video mashup stuff. We talked at length about how these tools related and what their educational potential was. What we found was not much of a track record for educational use or overt marketing in this direction. However, I felt there was suffificent potential to include them. I couldn't fashion a hands on activity as none of the tools fitted the criteria so I just did demos. At the time, I thought that it wasn't going down very well but afterwards some of the primary people said that they would think about this. The session suffered a little by having weak examples to show but I'm still glad I did it. Have a look on the website down the bottom of the page to see the tools that I decided to demo along with brief descriptions. Zimmer Twins and Xtra Normal are my favourites.

- As an afterthought to the creating a narrative section, I talked about and showed a couple of examples of glogster - the multimedia poster tool. I need to give this a higher profile to as they really liked the look of this. I can see why as there a lot of potential for homework activities with this. I need to look into this more.

Aside from the tools, I need to think of ways to engender more discussion. The computer room setup didn't help but I could have done more in this regard.

The biggest development I need to work on is getting better knowledge and understanding of the schools context. This session has potential if I can give it more contextual relevance. I'm not sure how best to do this so I need to have a think.

Finally, let me give thanks to the ICT gods for having all the technology work for me.

Presentation on "Structuring an online course" and some prezi reflections

Last week I taught a session (with a couple of colleagues) called Structuring an online course: guidance and example. Here I wanted to share my contribution to this session: a prezi presentation and talk about it. it's not embedding well so I'll just link to it - Structuring an onine course: Guidance and example - public version

What I've attempted to do is group together different sections of the process with a view to helping educators organise their thinking on this issue. The hard part of this is knowing what to leave out. I see this as a work in process because I hope to get clearer about the issues and the relationships as I get more experienced. The point of this practically focused framework is to help a Higher Education institution in 2011 - I work at the excellent Institute of Education. The point is that many academics need help with the basics. Basics that aren't well defined or universally agreed. By basics I mean the key decisions that need to be made; the main structural decisions to take. Some may disagree with the phrases used in the structure but the point is to give a framework from which to work. Of course, it needs context. I work with individuals to give this context. However, I'm interested in the academic staff who aren't banging down my door to have these conversations and are only at this particular session. It's something for them to take away. I want to make the maximium impact I can; an impact that cover the foundations of what they need to know. If this is all the time I get with them I don't waste time focusing on a small piece of the pie before they have tasted a bite or all the slices (not sure that works).

It's true that the pedagogy is only implicit in the presentation, if at all. In an ideal world the pedagogy is the starting point and the structure flows from there. My rationale for leaving this out is based on my experiences working with educators over the years. Rarely do they want to talk in the abstract and apply these abstract principles to their teaching. My best guess is that most educators have only a sense of their pedagogical tendencies but have a firm grasp on what types of activities they like using. So what I deem important for a first stab presentation like this are the types of activity available to them in their context. For this scenario, this meant outlining the main communication/collaboration tools available to people in my institution. A footnote to this is that pedagogy is complex and discussions around is are complicated and challenging. All this takes time, and this could feel a waste if there is only this one chance of communicating with them.

My concern with any teaching session is to avoid cul-de-sacs of discussion on issues of minor importance. Often such discussions focus on processes which hinder the success of teaching online or strategic and sometimes philosophical standpoints. This leads sessions and discussions down a slippery slope. By presenting something like this first, the chance of a focused discussion are much greater.

So the prezi provided has the following sections:

Before designing section - Basically, what I'm concerned with here is ensuring that you know why you are designing a purely online or blended learning course. Our context has a focus of converting from face-to-face but it applies to creating something from scratch. The why question is a whole area in itself which I won't dwell on here. The other noteworthy issue is whether you replace what you are currently doing with whatever you are designing now. This refers to replacing something purely online with something face-to-face. Most will not want to teach solely online, this is not what they signed up for when they embarked on this career! So duplication is the preferred way to go. I will probably rework this section. I think most of important issues are there but I'm not happy about the title and some of the wording.

Structural considerations - The prezi above is minus screenshots of example structures within our VLE. However, we have the key considerations. In reality these considerations are not decided upon before the actually activity/content design. It is an iterative process.

An online course needs - bespoke content, activities, readings This is the meat of the presentation and the focus is on the activities. The categories feel a bit simplistic but I think they work. What I'm keen to do is to make the point that uploading your powerpoint from a face-to-face lecture isn't good enough for bespoke content. You want specially created documents or multimedia at the very least. So I describe this area as bespoke content. Because we are HE, readings gets it's own area (the things in this bubble refer to our systems). For the activities bubbles, my split between asynchronous and synchronous was an easy design choice. They are such different beasts that we need to talk about them seperately. What I've outlined are the main tools available to us in our blackboard VLE. Moodlers out there will notice that moodle has more to offer. C'est la vie. I probably should have put e-portfolios in there however. What this model doesn't acknowledge is the relationship between the activities and the bespoke content. A blurring of the boundaries here would have got in the way of the message but this can come out when you talk.

Finally, some reflections on using prezi for this presentation. I did a few prezis a year ago but haven't done any since. My intention here was to present large structures and show relationships which could then be used to focus on individual elements. Doing it this way forces you to think hard about how the pieces fit together. When I started I didn't know what these structures would look like and, to be honest, I had hoped for better. However, it was a valuable exercise and I think it has a better look and feel using this tool. With powerpoint you can often get away with casually listing things as they come to mind and talk about them. BTW, if you just jump of one thing to the next without any big picture there's no point using prezi. What's frustrating about prezi is that when you decide to move a bubble and all it's contents, it's a fiddly job. There's supposed to be a multiple select option but I couldn't get this to work so I was forever dragging things around. Perhaps sketching things out on paper first is a good idea.

Anyway, I hope you find looking at the presentation and reading these reflections interesting. Presentations without the talking can only be so useful but hopefully you can get something from it. Feedback would be gratefully received.

What a learning technologist needs to be good at

I've talked previously about the principle of offering practical advice. This is referring to the level of abstraction you employ when talking about the design of the learning experience. My gut feeling is that because researchers are often employed in Learning Technology positions the tendency is to more be too abstract. This is a completely anecdotal assertion (this blog gives me this kind of freedom of expression).

Aside from this, what are the qualities I need to possess to have the maximum positive impact? By positive I mean giving people a good understanding of key issues with regard to LTs allowing them to make informed decisions on their appropriate use. I will list some qualities:

Good communication/good teaching:
I'm realising more and more that's being a good communicator and teacher is priority number 1 for this job. I need to be able to communicate my message in a variety of fora and a variety of contexts. I need to be able to communicate well and where possible teach well so that I make maximium advantage of each opportunity. I've been a lot recently on what it means to give practical advice on LTs particular with regard to designing a whole course. I think an important principle is making order out of simple but disparate concepts and ideas. It's very common for discussion to flit around lots of different issues, so if you can give order, structure and context for all of this then that's is really useful. Often what you come up with sounds obvious. Don't worry about this, it's still useful. For example, colleagues at the Institute of Education have found it useful when I say think about:

- Start time/finish
- Aligning topic with time periods

And then for each topic, think about:
- What bespoke content you want
- What readings you want
- What learning activities you want

There's much, much more to think about but this is a good basis. Sounds like common sense but key points are easily overlooked and mashed together causing confusion.

Finding opportunities to spread the word
It is often about manufacturing situations where you have a captive audience, placing myself in environment where people will listen. Ideally, people come to something you have organised where they want your help and support. In an ideal world this is one-to-one tuition or group training sessions. However, these can be difficult to manufacture so other situations have to be sought. Working groups for sharing practice are a good idea. You can always slip in advice at strategic points.

Adapting your message to the audience
This is about not banging the drum too hard with the wrong audience, in the wrong context. Because technology can be an emotive issue with some, the context needs to be right before you think about delivering your message. Also, if educators come to learn about, say, a particular tool or technology you can also give some learning design advice within this to give it context.

Initiating and taking control of your own learning
This is probably the hardest part. Clearly it's a principle which could apply to any profession. For LTs, at a simple level, it's about staying on top of new software and environments and ensuring that you understand how to work tools before the edcuator gets to it. This is hard enough but then you add to it, trying to keep abreast of the latest thinking in research terms with regard to LTs. A third strand which I try and do is reading and reflecting on the latest thinking on LTs outside the academia. I am talking about the the blogosphere and the micro-blogosphere. This is hard and involves making time to read and share what you can. It's valuable because it makes you think outside your narrow world. With any job there are times when learning gets swamped by being too damn busy but it's worth the effort when you get a chance. Taking control of your own learning and ensuring that you keep abreast on all three fronts is hard and sometimes overwhelming. But I'm always glad when I do. In fact, this is one of things that keep me interested in my job. Being able to easily find information and opinion and turn this into knowledge by reflecting on it in light of my context.

It's interesting rating yourself against these criteria. I come out ok, but that's probably because I picked the criteria. Mind you, there lots of room for improvement.

Levels of abstraction - Practical vs pedagogy

I've done a lot of work these past few months on helping academic colleagues who are thinking about converting their courses from face-to-face to be delivered through blended learning or purely online. This is unsurprising as this is a core component of my job! However, things have been pretty active recently as HE looks for additional modes of delivery to bring in more students and, by consequence, more money. Whatever the motivation, I'm happy.

As a result, there's been lots of learning that needs consolidating. Firstly, I had an interesting discussion the other day about the levels of abstraction. This is in terms of how abstract you discuss things with educators when helping them design an online course. I've always tends to try and grounds things in reality and talk in terms of practical components/examples/templates rather than pedagogical models. This is probably partly because its in my nature to do this but also because my experience is that this is what they want - or at least this is what I think they want. There are a number of reasons for this which I won't go into here. But getting the balance right on the scale of abstraction is a judgement call that a constant issue for any learning technologist. It's certainly important to be able to talk pedagogy if the need arise but it is the best starting point? I don't have the answers. My instincts and practice keep such dialogue in my back pocket. You might be thinking why not do both, why not do everything. Well, you need to be careful. Educators often approach you looking for clarity, looking for answers. Clarity is so, so important and I guess this is the heart of the matter. You have to choose what to say first and how to say it to give maximium benefit to the educator. This will be different for each person but common is the need to practical guidance on how a course could look online and what key decisions need to be made first. My next post will reflect upon the practical advice I've been championing in this post.

Looking outside the VLE is not a crime

Note to self - must blog more.

It's good to reflect back on my thinking last year and how things have moved on. I've been reflecting on my Web 2.0 model. I still think it's a useful guide for making sense of what's out there and, although it could probably be refined, I don't think its worth the effort as the changes would be minor. I've said in the past that integration of internet based tools and Virtual Learning Environments will get better over time. The rate of this improvement is frustratingly slow. Our institution, the Institute of Education, uses blackboard. When it comes to integration with internet-based tool, it's not good. Moodle is much better and our potential switch to this VLE would be very welcome from this point of view.

The issue of going outside the VLE doesn’t fit well with formal education. The instinct of an educational institution is to cover its back with anything it uses. As a result, the rules comes first. For the few that want to use something “out there”, they are forced to justify this position against whatever criteria deemed appropriate. The result is that most will not bother. Why risk doing something wrong especially since there is no often nothing to counter balance these rules and regulations and no intensive to think outside the box. I’m talking about resources that portray web 2.0 tools in a good light and champion their potential for teaching and learning. Such resources would be difficult to keep up to date but its a worthwhile endevour. It falls under the category of “seeking to improve how we teach and learn”. Surely this is worth doing.

This issue is related to whether you are proactive, going out there and trying to display what’s positive about learning technologies; or whether you are reactive, giving advice and support when people want it. The norm is the latter whereas I think we should be doing more of the former. I can see the argument for adopting both positions and perhaps I am drawn to the stance that feels like marketing sometimes because it is a minority position. It should be pointed that often lack of resources dictates how proactive you can be with regards to learning technologies.

On the internet based tools front, future VLEs will certainly have to cater for more integration. I can see them acting as a hub for pulling together everything the educator and the learners want to use. However, this probably won’t happen any time soon.

The self-motivated learner

I was struck by this headline in a mashable article - The internet empowers self-motivated learners. This is a good way of putting something that is blindingly obvious. But is it therefore not good for learners who are not so self-motivated? The internet is well suited to learners who are completely self-regulated, aggregating learning resources from a variety of sources, seeking out their own channels of support and collaboration. There has never been a better time to manage your own learning experience. However, where you have learners who are not motivated the management of the learning experience is done by someone else. In formal education this is always what happens. All learners have to be catered for and, even where the teacher wants to give free rein, its easier to set a strict agenda.

This is probably why there are so many tensions with online learning. For better or for worse learning is synonymous formal education in 2011 (happy new year) and with formal education more time is spent on managing the learning experience than anything else. This is the way it's always been online or offline. From the learners perspective I also believe that the habit of active learning is sorely lacking. Self-regulation and control is something closely guarded by educators. As a result, when given the opportunity to take control many don't know what to do. They neither want it or expect it. This is a rejection of the ethos of managing your own learning rather than a rejection of technology. Unfortunately, things are often interpreted incorrectly.