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Friday Sessions

Just as on Thursday, I decided to skip the plenary debates in favour of presentations and discussions. On the whole, the two sessions I attended were somewhat disappointing even though they did deliver some insights into approaches to e-learning. Unfortunately, a session on mobile devices and the classroom was placed too late in the afternoon.

The Change: Collected and Collaborative for Quality Learning Outcomes

This was a panel which suffered from what I would call “Conference Desease”: Too many presenters having to little time to present anything of practical value. On the positive side, the panel did address some interesting problems facing e-learning and in particular distance learning.

Both Thanasis Hadzilakos and Mark Brown emphasised a number of risks with an unreflected focus on MOOCs and large-scale e-learning. Brown pointed at the conflict between policy makers’ (and vice-chancellors’) focus on performance indicators and economic efficience on the one hand and academic standards on the other while both Brown and Hadzilakos warned against the unreflected emphasis on English in e-learning programmes and MOOCS. (Perhaps Estie Lubbe’s reflections on the possiblities of deliberately using e-learning in a multilingual context could also be of value here). Hadzilakos also touched upon the issue of creating frameworks for collaboration across locations by using ICT but unfortunately didn’t have the time to elaborate on this subject.

Christine Appel’s presentation followed this lead by addressing the problem of getting students to engage in collaboration during their studies. Again the point is that e-learning in the traditional sense has been seen as a highly individual form of studying while today’s technology at least in principle gives students and teachers access to collaborative tools. Again this was a point which would have merited further elaboration.

Finally, Appel discussed the logistical aspect of distance learning by introducing experiments with students being placed in their future work environment. This meant that eg. student teachers were placed physically on local schools. In present-day circumstances there may be a number of problems facing similar experiments in Denmark, but in principle a structure with social work students being placed at local job centres, social offices etc also outside of their internships could be an interesting innovation.

Aspects of Loving e-Learning

This panel differed very much from the other panels and workshops I attended during this year’s conference. One reason was that it was based on technology rather than didactics (basically: “We have the tools, they will determine the way you work and study”-approach), another that it very much took the “big data”-approach to education, something which has an intuitive appeal to educational managers but perhaps less to teachers. Somehow the underlying message from the panelists was that students are motivated by extrinsic rather than intrinsic factors (hence: gamification) and that we are moving towards a metric society (hence: the systematic collection of data on the micro-level).

What definitively provoked me in this session was the image of the teacher or educator being reduced to a surveyor of data (or in fact being made redundant by computers surveying the performance of students). Similarly, the collaborative or social aspects of learning which had featured prominently in the other sessions I attended, were spectacularly absent from the debate. The attraction to policy makers in government ministries and the staffs of vice-chancellors, on the other hand, is obvious.

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Thursday sessions: An overview

My notes from Thursday’s sessions are less coordinated as the three sessions I attended were structured differently and covered very diverse aspects of the relationship between in-class and out-of-class learning. So this will be more of a report than a reflection or attempt at applying insights.

1. The Flip Is In

This session followed the traditional panel structure with three presenters each discussion their own perspective on e-learning. Estie Lubbe’s reflections on experiments with e-learning and changing the role of in-class teaching delivered some profound insights into the sequencing of preparation, input and application. In her case the “flip” was mainly in substituting reading and excercises as (individual) preparation and lectures/exposition in class as (group) input with videos as (individual, asynchronous) preparation and group excercises in class as (group, synchronous) application.

Similarly Pierre Mora in his presentation emphasised the shift from lecturing to work on case studies, role play etc in class. Again, a topic would be a shift from input to application in classes. One issue addressed by Mora was the question of scalability of a pilot project with a handfull of students to full-scale production, especially as the pilot project had used some advanced – and expensive – technology.

One caveat to consider from Carlos Turro’s presentation of a large scale initiative to introduce and implement different kinds of e-learning at a university level was that while the rate of student satisfaction increased in courses under the initiative, it was not possible to see any improvement in academic performance.

2. Making It Real: Can Personalisation Fix Education?

One recurrent theme in Anette Q Petersen and Nick Kearney’s workshop was the question of creating room for student autonomy in learning and the conflict between the test paradigm dominating nearly all formalised education on the one hand and personal learning on the other. Another issue was the difference between personal and personalised learning (the latter involves design by the teacher, the former is controlled by the student). As the workshop was dominated by discussions in smaller groups, it is difficult to formulate a general conclusion but some questions to myself could include: How much space should we give to personal learning, what elements of a course should deliberately be left unplanned (a possible answer could be that preparation and to some degree follow-up will have a major personal component).

Another insight from the workshop could be that it is very hard for teachers and administrators not to think in terms of a formal framework in terms of tools, tasks and deadlines.

3. Framing ICT Competences of Teachers in Higher Education

The late-afternoon slot is always difficult and this workshop did leave me a bit confused about the aims and subject. Some thoughts from group discussions (and a big thank you to the organisers for not just relying on presentations) could be that HE teachers are insecure about both the technological and the didactic elements of e-learning, that most participants saw the line between HE management on the one hand and students and teachers on the other as broken, and that the adoption of e-learning strategies much rests on e-learning providing teachers with a sense of added value in their own daily work.

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Pre-conference Workshop: More than Blended Learning

“Blended learning” is very much a buzzword in the education community and buzzwords always carry with them the risk of a high bullsh*t to relevance factor. This makes it all the more satisfying when a workshop director concentrates on the fundamental dilemmas and choices faced by anyone designing an online course – or in fact anyone designing any kind of course – instead of repeating the buzzwords of the day. As it is, Clive Shepherd’s three-hour workshop left me wishing we had had an extra hour at our hands, which might have made it possible to get into more detail with some of the dimensions, concepts and dilemmas. One main point is that Shepherd explicitly didn’t frame the blend in terms of on- and off-line, but addressed several dimensions where elements of teaching and learning are blended. Another that there is no golden formula for a blend – this very much depends on what the aim of e learning i. So what I will try here is to apply what I think are the main insights from the workshop on some of the main issues facing those who work with the distance programme in social work here at UC Lillebælt.

First, a general issue in much higher education is the link between preparation (of and by the students) and input (generally known as “teaching”) on the one hand and application and follow-up on the other. As HE teachers, we are very good at providing (certain kinds of) input but we should ask ourselves about possible ways to improve the application by students of knowledge and skills and how the long-term  follow-up could be organised. As it is, application on a larger scale is often left to the workplace where students have their internships and their eventual workplace. Similarly, we have a very limited knowledge about the follow-up both during and after the bachelor programme.

Second, while we have established a routine of 1,5 day meetings every third week (logistics play a role here) , it is often not clear what we should do during meetings and what should be placed during the 3-week periods of self-study (and should these three weeks really be self-study?). What the workshop suggested was that exposition – which is what students seem to expect from meetings and classes, and which Shepherd maintained does have a place in education alongside instruction, guided discovery and exploration – could be shifted to different kinds of on- and off-line delivery during inter-meeting periods. Instead, meetings could focus on group processes and the establishment of a playing field for the next weeks or entire programme module. As I suggest, we may face a conflict between students’ expectations and didactic insights here.

Third, we could improve the Social Work programme by applying a more systematic approach to the creation and inclusion of elements of instruction and guided discovery alongside exposition. We already include these elements to considerable, but varying degrees – and different programme modules for obvious reasons have different needs in terms of blends – but this is often left to the inspiration of individual teachers with a limited transfer of concepts and experiences. The issue here is at the organsational and logistical level (teachers often do not have the time to meet and exhange experiences).

Fourth, most teaching is group-based, either in the form of classes or study groups, with some elements of one-to-one teaching included. We expect students to do a lot of individual studies during the programme – the high level of flexibility in this type of learning is definitively one of the main attractions for prospective students – and this does have a place in learning but the issue is which types of knowledge and skills we expect students to be able to learn in this way. We could also note that student communities exist (Facebook!) but they are largely outside the reach of HE teachers.

Fifth, at colleges logistical constraints play a large role in determining the blend of different kinds of organised learning. Organisational culture also is an issue but colleges and departments for a number of reasons are very constrained in terms of resources, access to different types of platforms, the distribution of teachers, etc. Also, as organsations departments have a habit of choosing a basic template of blends and applying it all the way through an entire programme. This makes it all the more necessary to take a systematic look at the two other essential factors in course design – what is the learning which is required (the national study goals only provide part of the answer) and who are the learners. Here, spending some time and money on exploring students’ backgrounds may be resources well spent.

This post only includes some short observations based on the insights of the workshop. Each of the points here could merit further discussion both on- and off-line.