Open Networked Learning Course (ONL212), Topic 2: Open Learning and the Growing of Plants   

I always thought of ‘open learning’ and ‘open access’ as making educational resources freely available to all online and was thrown completely off balance after hearing Maha Bali speak at our ONL webinar about OER as ‘Self’. Maha Bali and Susan Koseoglu argue for a broader understanding of open educational resource (OER) that goes beyond “educational materials and tools” to include the “processes and products of open scholarship”. They also further argue for an understanding of OER as ‘Self’ or identity, for “openness as a worldview” or “openness as a state of being in the world – and not necessarily in a digitized world”. They highlight four possible ways of engaging with the world as an OER: 1. Being an “editable person” who is willing to listen and change; 2. Undertaking “narrated practice” or being transparent about our processes; 3. Embracing vulnerability which would include the sharing of incomplete ideas and allowing others see us as “who we are” and our “authentic identities”; 4. Participating in knowledge negotiation (e.g. open conversations about developing ideas) instead of only “polished knowledge sharing” (e.g. journal publications).

This idea of OER as identity very interesting and timely as I have been thinking a lot about the role of an academic lately—as educator, writer, and learner. Our ONL discussion webinar with Kiruthika Ragupathi and Alastair Creelman further explored how such openness would influence how we relate to students, other academics, and other institutions. As an ‘open’ academic, one could share materials, feedback, and ideas with other educators in one’s own institution as well as those in other institutions. As an ‘open’ educator, one could adapt the course syllabus in response to students’ needs and interests, listening and observing more than speaking. One could prioritize inculcating ‘openness’ in students and creating a safe classroom environment that encourages the sharing of imperfect thoughts and works in progress. As an ‘open’ writer, one’s writing could speak to not just academics within one’s discipline but also researchers in other fields and the public. One could engage with issues of public interest, speak and write boldly with courage and conviction. As an ‘open’ learner, one could take charge of one’s continuous learning and accept the struggle and time needed to learn something new. It is alright to be not ‘good’ at something. This is of course difficult in a culture that emphasises productivity and achievement over effort and process. As Bali and Koseoglu recognise, power differentials also impact one’s ability to be ‘open’. This is very true. To what extent is one able to adopt an identity and practice that deviates from the scripts and goals set by those in power?  

In our PBL group discussions about openness, one theme that emerged was the importance of knowing how to locate and evaluate the accuracy and quality of information in the online sea of information. ‘How to know’ skills are more important than ‘what to know’. Our group facilitator (thanks Miriam!) pointed us to a fascinating article by Seymour Papert on the art of learning. Papert observes that ‘how to know’ or “the art of learning” is currently an “academic orphan” in our current education system and culture. He highlights mainstream education practices and assumptions that neglect or undermine effective learning, such as the insistence on speedy task completion though deep learning requires time and “thinking about the problem”. His article discusses several ‘how to know’ conditions (e.g. having discussions, real needs vs abstract problems, finding interconnections, dividing up the problem to solve it in parts). It also made me think about failing as an important part of the learning process, about the need to learn how to deal with the psychological fall-out of failure and get back up again. We don’t recognise this enough as educators and learners. Instead, most continue to emphasise ‘excellence’ (e.g. grades, rankings) and ‘productivity’.

In his article, Papert describes his foray into ‘flower literacy’ (recognising and naming of flowers). At first, he struggled to remember the complicated flower names and match them to the flowers, but with time, he gradually found himself gaining mastery over ‘flower literacy’ through conversations with others and by drawing interconnections with other areas he found interesting. This made me think about my own attempts at plant care over the past five years. At the start, I was puzzled at why all my plants kept dying despite my constant and even frantic attention. I was a helicopter plant parent, rushing around our apartment placing pots with withering plants in different spots in desperate attempts to revive them, under the fan, first in the light, and then away from the light. Slowly, I started sharing about my failures and getting tips from friends with green fingers, home-based plant sellers, and plant shop employees. I accepted that some casualties were necessary. I read up more about plant care and was especially interested in plants safe for pets, connecting plant care to care of our little aging chihuahua Tiny who continues to have a habit of chewing on plants. After months of moving pots around our apartment, and after observing where our new neighbours placed their flourishing garden on their balcony, I finally found a spot on ours that was just right. My plant care journey has taken quite a bit of time and research, many conversations, and more than some tears.

Today, the little green corner on our balcony is a source of much joy for me (and our dog Tiny). It is also a reminder of the ups-and-downs of my learning journey.

Tiny enjoying the sunshine in the green corner of our balcony, October 2021.

Open Networked Learning Course (ONL212), Topic 1: Digital Classrooms and Flamenco

I am now in the second week of Topic 1 of ONL212 (Online Participation and Digital Literacies). For our Topic 1 groupwork, my group has decided to explore the concept of a ‘digital classroom’.

Based on my online teaching experiences during this pandemic, it can be difficult to make everyone feel included and comfortable in an online environment. This is actually a pressing pedagogical question that goes beyond this pandemic. Sometime during our ONL group’s discussions this week, we talked about whether the digital classroom refers to only online spaces or also in-person meetings. In reality, we have all been teaching and learning in digital classrooms for a long time. During in-person seminars, students are checking emails, googling for information, and having online conversations with each other over WhatsApp and Messenger. How does one design a course that recognizes the realities of today’s digital classroom? And following that, what kinds of digital literacies are required of educators and learners in such digital classrooms? Recalling David White’s distinction between digital ‘residents’ and ‘visitors’, if I would like students to be ‘residents’ in our digital classroom—feel confident, at ease, and included—what kind of pedagogical approach, skills, and tools would I need?

Scientific studies show that in our mid-twenties, our brains start getting less agile and it gets ‘harder’ to learn new things, though it is precisely through the learning of new things that our brains keep healthy. So, while I often feel like a tech Neanderthal navigating this brave new digital world, I am telling myself that the learning of new digital literacies will keep my brain fit. So far, I have been intrigued by the digital tools and activities used during our ONL talks and group meetings: uploading hand-drawn charts on Padlet, brainstorming with my group members on Google’s Jamboard, and creating my own avatar (see below). For this week, we are supposed to do something with video, but I have not started on that yet.

Apart from motivating myself, another question of interest to me is the motivating of learners in a digital classroom. I found this post on student motivation by Ann S. Michaelsen (whose book I plan to purchase) particularly interesting. Studies show that learners are most motivated when they have relatedness, competence, and autonomy. How then should a course and digital classroom be designed to meet these psychological needs and facilitate motivation? There is also the need for educators and learners to equip themselves with the appropriate digital literacies. As David White and Alison Le Cornu recognise, “online literacies differ between platforms” and age is less influential than ideas of privacy and community when it comes to technology use. This means one cannot assume that one’s ‘younger’ students are aware of how a particular digital tool should be employed for learning purposes. For example, most university students have experience using social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), but if social media is incorporated into the course as a learning platform, some guidelines and discussion may be needed to ensure that social media interventions are thoughtful (instead of reactive), constructive, and supportive rather than destructive of learning (e.g. no constant or obsessive checking and posting).

I must admit that engaging with the digital classroom can be slightly unnerving. In physical classes, one could arguably choose to ignore the digital conversations and activities of students floating around as one lectures in front of the class. Or one can view such digital realities as pedagogical opportunity and try to shape it to enhance student learning.

The last time I engaged in such motivational self-talk was when I fell in love with, and decided to learn, flamenco and classical Spanish dance. For me, learning these dance forms is like learning a completely new language, quite literally, as the letra is in Spanish and castanet-playing is, as my dance teacher/mentor Tania Goh (Spanish Dance Singapore) explains, an intricate musical vocabulary in itself. Being in the digital classroom also requires learning a new ‘language’. And perhaps the rich art form of flamenco yields another insight. The spontaneous and improvisational nature of flamenco means that the flamenco dancer is never ‘performing’ alone but communicating with the singer(s), musician(s), and audience. Each plays off the other, taking the lead at different times and also following in turn. No one is really the ‘star’. And perhaps that is the role of the educator in today’s digital university classroom, no longer as mere information provider or all-knowing ‘leader’, but as facilitator and fellow learner in the seeking and making of knowledge, responding to the ongoing conversations and evolving interests of students. One of the questions we have been asked to reflect on these two weeks is our digital identity. While the analogy is not perfect, I have decided that I will aim to be Carmen Amaya (see below) in my digital classroom.

Open Networked Learning Course (ONL212), Connecting Week: Patience and Honesty

I didn’t expect to encounter such feelings of strangeness during the first ‘connecting week’ of ONL212. We had two group meetings this week. There are nine members in my group including two facilitators. Two group members (including myself) are from Singapore and others are from Europe (Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Italy).

Our group assignment for this week: 1. Discuss and adopt group collaboration guidelines; 2. Prepare something as a group “to present [our] group to the wider ONL community in any way you like”.

I kid you not. No other instructions. Just prepare a presentation of our group “in any way you like”. We had two group meetings. Both started off slow with most of us (me definitely) groping in the dark.

It was difficult being patient and present throughout all the uncertainty and unfamiliarity I was feeling.

It seems we are to complete a task as a group for each topic of the course. At some point in our group meeting, I asked our facilitator when we would know the exact group tasks. He explained that each task would only be “revealed” at the start of each topic. Wow! I had to stop myself from asking for more details.

I felt a bit better after reading the blog post of my groupmate Sven, where he openly shares about his discomfort. Reading his blog post also made me think about the importance of honesty. Being honest with myself and others about my discomfort and impatience is difficult. As an educator and a student, I am used to courses with detailed topic descriptions, assessment methods, and reading lists all set out in advance. After experiencing the strange interestingness of my first group meeting, I tried to find some anchor by going through the recommended course readings for this week.

In their paper on problem-based learning, Kek and Huijser explain:

“The ability to quickly get accustomed to change or ‘way of being’ might also be seen as adaptive expertise, a term coined by Hatano and Inagaki (1984) to contrast it with routine expertise. They posited that expertise comprises, at its base, both subject-level knowledge, and the ability to perform efficiently and effectively in familiar situations. However, when an individual encounters a novel or unfamiliar situation, i.e. the task, method or desired results are not known in advance, the individual with routine expertise struggles. By contrast, adaptive expertise would allow for that individual to easily overcome the constraining effects of novelty and unfamiliarity, both on an affective and cognitive level, and this in turn would allow sufficient flexibility to respond appropriately (Schwartz, Bransford, & Sears, 2005).”

“In other words, in the age of supercomplexity, human beings function in complex ecosystems that are characterized by various intersecting layers, which impact on each other. To function successfully in such ecosystems requires knowledge, skills, abilities, and dispositions, and as we argue, a particular way-of-being that allows people to deal in productive and creative ways with uncertainty.”

One of our adopted lime caterpillars. Our first adopted lime caterpillar baby emerged from its chrysalis a few days ago. Thanks to Michy and Onique for facilitating the adoptions. Photo courtesy of Veronique Tan.

I like their reference to a new “way of being”, though this also means unlearning old ways of being. I reminded myself of this throughout our second group meeting which ended with some jokes, smiles, and laughs. We also managed to agree on the presentation we would make, and most importantly, we agreed on having fun.

Walking

Am starting this blog as part of my participation in ONL212. Spent this morning browsing through the blogs of fellow participants and am much inspired by their enthusiasm for teaching and learning.

As I explained in my ONL212 self-introduction, I am an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law of the National University of Singapore. I teach and research in the areas of international and comparative criminal law, transitional justice, and human rights.

I believe that online learning can be empowering and an equalizer, if done well. A few years ago, I co-founded (with Ng Pei Yi) the Singapore War Crimes Trials Project (https://www.singaporewarcrimestrials.com/). I have also been involved in other online education and research initiatives (e.g. ICC Legal Tools Database).

I am particularly interested in learning more about online student motivation and collaboration in digital spaces.

After several encouraging weeks in Singapore, today is the first day of a month of heightened restrictions.

But am looking forward to this online experiment.

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