Discussion activity templates

In our rush to  promote knowledge and understanding of dynamic, creative and engaging internet-based technologies within formal education, it's easy to lose sight of the importance of core text-based interaction tools like discussions or forums.  Such communication channels can be a really good way of eliciting a reflective dialogue when setup and facilitated effectively.  The key point is that the asynchronicity allows for reflection and considered articulation of your thoughts (something I've reflected on in Asynchronous = Time and space learning , The difference between asynchronous and synchronous learning activities and The learning cycle and the power of asynchronous learning activities ).  For me, the process of rearranging and retyping words in a forum post is as close to a manifestation of the learning process as you can get.  Your knowledge and understanding is being refined and crystallised based on the thoughts of other learner's. In addition, you are presenting your position and making a conscious effort to get your point across.  In addition, regular engagement in text-based learning activities have a really positive effect on developing a learner's written articulation skills.

I work in UK Higher Education where its rare for courses to make use of learning technologies not to design in some discussion based learning activities.  A common technique for those involved in helping educators design such activities is to use representations of practice.  This could include case studies, or pedagogical templates.  Quite often, learning technologies come up with their own and I am no different.  I try to use representations which have pedagogical rigour but are also easily digestable.  The level of abstraction needs to be somewhere between being too abstract for easy application and too specific to be adaptable.  Also, a consideration for easy digestion is the length of the representation.  Basically, its not good to be too long.
Below are a set of representations that can be used for any online discussion tool.  Each box represents example wording that can be adapted for use within any learning activity using this tool.  You will notice that there is lots of process support in each wording.  This covers how the learners should engage with the activity and explaining how the tutor/facilitator will engage.  Such process support is a vital part of the design of online learning activities and often overlooked.

Ideally I use these activity wordings as part of learning design consultation.  It helps educators new to e-learning visualise how such activities could work.  It also highlight the different types of discussion you can have.  I've grouped the wordings within a scaffolded learning process - it happens to be Salmon one but I could have used others.  The point of this is to show how discussions can be used at different stages of a scaffolded learning process.  What's interesting is that other tools like wikis are more suitable for later stages in the learning process whereas the discussion tool is a versatile and can be used within lots of different contexts. 

I hope you find these useful.

Collaborative bookmarking in education

To continue the series of posts on the theme of internet-based tools for teaching and learning, here is my latest thinking on collaborative bookmarking in education.

Firstly, the term I'm using is collaborative bookmarking rather than social bookmarking.  This is because I'm trying to put it within a educational context.  The emphasis, therefore, is collaboration or co-construction of knowledge and understanding and using an online bookmarking service as part of such a pedagogical design.

The best way of experiencing online bookmark is to experience it for yourself and, unlike other online tools with potential for education, there is a clear rationale for personal bookmarking as it's a much, much better than saving website links than the old favourites, folders way.  Part of this is about digital literacy, we really need to help our educators understanding and experience key social media concepts for themselves to help them comprehend how formal can utilise such tools.  For example, for social bookmarking tagging is key.  The power is in the multiple tags you can put against single sites so that sorting and categorisation can be nuanced and flexible.  Although tagging exists across all social media, it's amazing how it isn't used by the vast majority in most tools/services.  With bookmarking you pretty much have to tag, so it's a good way of forcing people to learn this skill and experience its benefits.  This is the folksonomy concept.

The learning context is simply - group creation of a relevant weblinks so that the workload is shared and the useful resources people find can be built up into a bank of resources for groups in the future.  The principle is sound so what are the tools?
I've used two services: http://www.delicious.com/ and http://www.diigo.com/.  Delicious has changed much over the years.  As a pure bookmarking tool, in its current version, this is my favourite.  It's brief marriage to yahoo didn't do it any favours (I went elsewhere whilst this occurred) and its progress has been set up a few years as a result.  It's strength is its simplicity and the stacks feature is a good one.  I can see how stacks could be utilise for student activities where they are asked to find and present as a resource relevant websites on a particular topic.

However, for a group learning context its not ideal.  For this I would recommend http://www.diigo.com/ as its more geared towards education.  A free education license (http://www.diigo.com/education) gives you the ability to create accounts for students in a group.  You could use such a group to share resources and I've helped a number of colleagues do this for their courses.  What's good is that you get a url for your group area which you can share and post to your vle area websites.  Also, with diigo you can make notes against each bookmark or make notes on the webpage itself.  I've used diigo to plan sessions like this one http://groups.diigo.com/group/web20_learning with colleagues.

So what's my experience of bookmarking in my UK HE institution?  Overall, I would say the courses I've helped with haven't made much use of their group bookmarking facility. Its worth reflecting on why?
  • Usability has an impact as it's not great.  Ok, there's a diigo toolbar but what if your educational institution won't let you do this? Well, you are left with their rather cumbersome usability. Also, access to any diigo requires a login.  Although you can create this for students its still an extra step.  I advise where possible you duplicate other logins they may have.
  • There's an ethos of sharing at the heart of social media and when shoehorned into a formal education context it often doesn't sit well.  There's an element of competition, an element of selfishness ingrained into the mentality of learners who have come through schooling and have arrived at higher education - at least at the moment.
  • The common context for use has been as a course wide sharing of readings and references related to the writing of the assignment.  Technically students should be collecting these throughout the course.  However, its common for this to occur in a mad rush at the end.  There's no time or use for sharing resources at this stage.  It would be preferable to relate the sharing of web resources to a particular learning activity so that the rationale and incentive is clear and you can quickly reach large number of bookmarks.  It's only when you have lots that you see the benefit of having a dedicated bookmarking service.  Otherwise, students will simply paste via a forum or email.
I've had a section within my session 21st Century Tools for Teaching and Learning on bookmarking since I started it a 3 years ago.  I've been able to create a diigo create and hand out logins for people to try out the uploading process.  It's worked well.  At the last day I did on 7th Feb there were interesting ideas of using it for sharing resources amongst staff and parents.

I'd welcome any comments about your experiences of bookmarking in education, whatever the context.