Open Networked Learning Course (ONL212), Topic 4: Design for online and blended learning – advice to my younger self?

When I started teaching many years ago, I received a variety of advice from well-meaning senior colleagues. “Don’t let the students walk all over you.” “Get some student feedback around the mid-term mark to see how you are doing.” “Don’t be too nice.” “Don’t assign too much material.” I don’t recall much discussion about overall course design, much less blended learning.

I found this ONL topic the heaviest in terms of substantive content. There are just so many theories and models on course design out there! During our group discussions, some members talked about the models they use (e.g. Gilly Salmon’s Five Stage Model). This was most helpful. I wouldn’t know where to start otherwise.

Wading through all the theories and models on course design, I think it is important to remember to return to basics: the theories and models chosen will ultimately depend on course objectives. Based on their 3C-model, Kerres and De Witt argue that learning environments are made up of three components: (a) a content component (“that makes learning material available to a learner”; (b) a communication component (“that offers interpersonal exchange between learners or learners and tutors”; (c) a constructive component (“that facilitates and guides individual as well as cooperative learning activities to actively operate on learning tasks (or assignments) with different degrees of complexity”). All three components can be delivered face-to-face (FTF) or online, but the balance between these three components will depend on course objectives. For example, if the main objective of a law course is simply for students to learn applicable ‘black-letter’ legal rules (not advisable especially in this day and age) then the course will necessarily be designed to focus on content delivery (via FTF or online) as opposed to communication or construction.

One theme that came up during our group discussions was the need to ensure that our courses are inclusive. After several years of teaching, I sometimes take student profiles for granted. While I try to get to know my students as individuals, I do tend to assume that they start the course with certain study skills and learning styles. A couple of years back, I had a student with special needs who taught me never to take this for granted. When preparing for next term’s course, I will definitely be referring to some inclusivity frameworks highlighted by my group mates, in particular the Universal Design for Learning.

Thinking about course design also made me really appreciate our synchronous ONL group discussions. Even when group discussions are slow, these synchronous sessions always spark my curiosity and encourage further self-study. Preparing for these synchronous sessions is however tiring. Smith, Groves, Bowd and Barber emphasize the need for educators to carefully plan synchronous sessions as such sessions are “expensive” for learners in terms of time and effort. I found Marshall and Kostka’s Synchronous Online Flipped Learning Approach (SOFLA) useful for thinking about how to combine synchronous and asynchronous sessions to maximize learner experience. According to Marshall and Kostka, teaching presence can be enhanced in both synchronous and asynchronous settings by thinking through lesson plans using a series of eight steps: prework, sign-in activity, whole group application, breakouts, share-out, preview and discovery, assignment instructions, reflection. This SOFLA model clearly aims to empower learners and encourage collaborative learning by recognizing “the interactive and dynamic nature of learning that results when teacher-led activities are moved out of class”.

I realize I have learned a lot from our group’s facilitators. Miriam and Peter functioned more like coaches throughout the course, especially during our synchronous online sessions. Timonen and Ruokamo argue that there is a difference between facilitating and coaching. A group coach “participates in the learning process” while a group facilitator “leads it”. Group coaches aim “to foster internal agency” and “uphold the common targets of the group”. A group’s coach “capitalizes on its members’ capacities and competences”. Based on my observations, our ONL ‘facilitators’ took a coaching approach in getting our group to take charge of our group’s direction. They provided us with resources and collaborative methods (e.g. the say ‘Yes, and’ approach). They motivated us with encouraging comments and suggestions. Such group coaching is resource-intensive. We had two group ‘facilitators’ or ‘coaches’ for our group of eight.  

Given all this, course design is really quite an undertaking. Knowing this now, I wonder what advice I would have given to my younger self.

Open Networked Learning Course (ONL212), Topic 3: Learning in communities – online fatigue and improving my active participation

We are more than halfway through the ONL212 course now, and while I still find the course highly interesting, I am definitely feeling tired. My first thought was to point the finger at the amount of group work required by ONL. We have group meetings twice a week and group projects every two weeks on top of course readings and seminars. After some reflection, I realize that it is probably not the group work that is making me tired. While I sometimes dread the start of my group meetings, I always leave the meetings energized by our discussions. I always learn new things and have my curiosity piqued.

Always be curious! My first attempt at digital art using Adobe Sketch.

I found Topic 3 on collaboration for learning timely given my fatigue. Researchers subscribing to the connectivism theory of learning argue that learning, specifically in the online context, is “most often accomplished through interaction and dialogue”. This extends beyond the online context. Collaboration appears conducive, if not necessary, to the development of critical thinking or higher order thinking skills which are associated with inquiry and argument. Kuhn and Dean define critical thinking as “awareness of one’s own thinking” and “reflection on the thinking of self and others as an object of cognition”. If we hope for our students to embrace learning and critical thinking as a lifelong endeavour, we should equip them for collaboration beyond our courses. We should strive to create educational settings that encourage “group connectivity and collaboration experiences” that enable students to attain the comfort and skills needed to construct and participate in “learning communities and social networks”.

How can educators design courses that encourage a willingness and ability in learners to collaborate for learning? Siemens’ description of the four-stages of learner-learner interaction is particularly interesting (communication, collaboration, cooperation, community). Courses should be designed to incorporate group tasks that facilitate progressively richer interactions and the eventual construction of a community where participants are united by “a common purpose”. Brindley, Walti, and Blaschke suggest that instructors can do so by ensuring students have skills needed for effective collaboration, designing the course to afford a good balance between structure and learner autonomy, nurturing a sense of community, monitoring group work, making the task relevant for learners, providing sufficient time for collaboration to develop.

Of particular interest to me are the skills needed for collaboration. The ability to work in groups or collaborate is often taken for granted; there is an assumption that everyone has the know-how to work with others and if someone doesn’t work well with others, this person is just being uncooperative. Roy identifies a long list of social, emotional, and technological skills required for individuals to work well in online collaborative teams or Virtual Collaboration Teams (VCTs). These include communication skills (e.g. use of simple language, ability to deal with ambiguity) and relationship-building skills (e.g. ability and willingness to motivate others, a positive attitude to group member diversity). If students are expected to collaborate as part of the learning process, educators should also take steps to equip students with the skills needed for collaboration.

Some steps to improve online engagement and learning.

Studies show that for effective learning, those learning cannot merely be passive watchers but need to be active participants. Peper, Wilson, Martin, Rosegard, and Harvey suggest various steps that educators and learners can take to ensure effective online engagement and learning (e.g. nod or shake your head to ensure facial and body feedback, solicit active feedback through polls/chat, sit up straight rather than slouch to activate positive memories and feelings, slot in movement breaks). They also highlight the need to ensure that students receive information on how active participation improves learning and how they can be more active participants. Their interesting research also pointed to the possible source of my fatigue: body posture and vision stress.

Time for me to start using the second-hand stability cushion I got a few weeks ago.

Open Networked Learning Course (ONL212), Reflection Week: Listening and Play

We did not have any group meetings or events this last week for ONL because it was ‘reflection week’. Much needed for sure as there has been much to think about after each ONL group meeting or webinar. I have also been in a particularly reflective mood, wrestling with conflicting thoughts about the direction of my teaching, writing, and research.

I am learning quite a bit about working collaboratively in a group with members of different institutional and disciplinary backgrounds. Listening in a different environment (online) has made me aware of the difficulties and importance of listening as a practice. It is much harder to read body language and facial expressions on a screen, and to sense when someone agrees, disagrees, or wants to speak. Sometimes we talk over each other and sometimes some of us think we are all ready to come to a group conclusion when someone suddenly voices her or his strong disagreement. In her excellent book, Kate Murphy highlights the importance of silence and presence when listening. Yet, most of us are highly uncomfortable with, and unable to embrace, silence.

“When people are uncomfortable with silence, they are thinking about what they want to say immediately when the other person stops speaking, so they have missed a good chunk of the conversation”

Listening brings with it the possibility of hearing something disagreeable, of having someone criticize your work or beliefs. As Murphy explains, such conflict can ignite a threat response in our brains. When people’s deeply held beliefs are challenged, their brain waves change, giving rise to“the same brain pattern that they would have as if they were being chased by a bear, like it was an existential threat”. No wonder active listening takes such energy and effort.

While it has been an effortful journey, the ONL course design is such that I have found it fun to problem solve with my group members, discover different IT tools, and reflect on broader pedagogical questions. This has made me think about the role of fun in learning. The importance of fun and play in childhood education is well-established today. At home, we try to make learning fun for TTT, our four-year-old terror. It is great seeing TTT get all excited when competing against one of us to read or recognize words, especially when the ‘winner’ gets to hit the ‘loser’ with a big balloon in the shape of a caveman (or cavewoman) club. Ouch.

Whoever loses the word challenge at home gets clubbed!

What role should fun play in adult learning? I definitely find it easier to attend ONL’s late night group meetings and go through our assigned learning materials because I find these fun. However, the ONL experience also constantly reminds me that learning new things is hard, and that it is important to press on even when things get less fun. Setting this blog up was challenging. It also took me over an hour to produce a 15-second video on Biteable for ONL. What is the relationship between fun, effort, and learning? Is fun a mere luxury in higher education? Or is it detrimental to learning? Should we be encouraging students to expect fun lessons and educators to become entertainers?

What does ‘fun’ mean in the context of learning anyway?

Whitton and Langan‘s empirical study shows that the university students who participated in their research “often associated ‘fun’ with factors that promoted learning rather than with games, humor, or entertainment”. Students linked  ‘fun’ to “stimulating pedagogy”, “lecturer engagement”, “a safe learning space”, “shared experience”, and “a low-stress environment”. Participants also emphasized that “their relationships with their lecturers were very important” in “creating an environment where learning was fun and engaging”. Specifically, participants valued “the ability of a teacher to create an equitable relationship between themselves and their students”, reflecting the idea of lecturers as “the deliverer of knowledge” to “facilitator or co-learner”.

How interesting.

For my next class, am definitely bringing along my cavewoman club.

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.

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