Online Educa 2016

It is that time of the year again…

During the next couple of days I’ll be attending Online Educa Berlin for the third year running and you may feel entitled to ask: Have the previous two years had any impact on my day-to-day work?

Good question. It is probably most fair to say that there have been no large-scale revolutions but that Clive Shepherd’s discussion of different ways to “blend” specific elements of learning continues to be a useful model for my planning of courses. Partly by accident, partly by design, I have begun experimenting with recorded instructions and presentations, specifically in a course module where I will be teaching and supervising student groups making interviews with marginalised citizens. The e-learning format seemed an obvious vehicle for instructing students about their assingment and techniques for preparing and analyzing interviews while using the face-to-face time for tutoring and supervision. As the course module has only just started, I won’t be able to evaluate and comment on the experiment before January. But I still think that last year’s workshop gave me the tools needed to conceptualise the different ways of organising the preparation, instruction and application of skills-oriented teaching and learning.

I guess that another lesson which I have learned is that planning and implementing a fundamental revision of a study programme is likely to be doomed because of the complexity of a cross-disciplinary programme. Doing small-scale experiments is a much more viable strategy.

How about this year’s OEB, then? I found it a bit difficult to select a relevant pre-conference workshop but in the end I opted for a workshop about e-learning, content platforms and mobile experience. Most students – and teachers – in HE are familiar with mobile devices and we could argue that the mobile interface is already our main interface with the WWW but we are still some way away from integrating this experience in the design of LMEs and teaching materials.

Another theme that I will try to follow is a series of presentations on the first day of the conference which focus on the role of students in producing learning content and structuring learning. This also fits with a project I will be contributing to during 2017 concerning the implementation of the “study activity model” in Danish professional BA-programmes with a specific focus on blended learning. I will try a write more about this later in the week. As a follow-up I consider attending a number of presentations focussing on students “owning” or “controlling” their learning environment – even though my plans are still open for revision.

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.

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.