Saturday, 25 June 2011

Social Media Revolution

I'm focusing on my ECA (end of course assignment, in place of an exam) at the moment. I'm designing specifications for learning activities using web2.0 tools and assessment practices. I'm obviously not allowed to post what I'm up to though!

This was a nice 2:35 minute diversion from trying to write (unfortunately I have more diversions than writing, but that's another problem!).
Part of the world’s most watched Social Media video series; “Social Media Revolution” by Erik Qualman. Based on #1 International Best Selling Book Socialnomics by Erik Qualman. This is a shorter version that includes new social media statistics for 2011.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Variations in student perceptions of assessment

Experiences of assessment: using phenomenography for evaluation’ (Jones and Asensio, 2001)

This paper explores the use of assessment as a tool for structuring students' experiences in a networked learning environment. The phenomenographical approach aims to explore people's qualitatively different ways of experiencing the world. In this case, this was studied through the use of interviews with tutors and students on the Open University 'Information Technology and Society (THD204)' course which used conferencing for communication and in two assignments.

Key points
  • "The problems of interpretation and the understanding of others' intentions are fundamental to collaboration" (schwartz, 1999) - in an online, distance learning environment, documentation and the interpretations given to documentation become critical. 
  • It is "extrememely difficult to design an online course [or] activities in ways where you are not surprised and/or disappointed by the output".
  • Student participation is a common concern - and a common response to to redesign a course with more and tighter control over the learner's choices and pace of interaction/contribution; this was recognised that "the tighter the schedule the more structured the exercise is and there is a danger that you're damping down ont he potential for creativity".
  • "it is possible to use assignments as a vehicle for encouraging students to adopt new patterns of learning, whilst at the same time covering course content" (Macdonald et al, 1999) - but for this to be achieve, students must have a clear understanding of the course designers' intentions.
  • Students' experiences vary in what may be unpredictable ways for the course designers' intentions. 
  • Students can interpret the aims of assessment differently - even if they are in a co-operative group tasked with a joint project! In this case, this was despite 12 pages of detailed instruction.
  • Course designers cannot control the background and context in which students interpret instructions or assessment criteria. Even course documentation aimed at students who have many external factors influencing their interpretation may be misinterpreted.
  • Distance/networked learning may suffer more from differences in student interpretation because the interpretation of context by students is more vulnerable to variations in setting than in face-to-face settings.
  • The approach adopted by the teacher is a key variant in helping to determine a student's approach to learning (Prosser and Trigwell).
  • The variation in student interpretation might imply that "teaching interventions were necessary to negotiate understanding 'on the fly' and that a cautious attitude needed to be adopted to reliance on the use of course documents in a networked environment."
There were a lot of clarification questions asked in our tutor group and course forums about each of the assignments on H807. This would suggest that (some) students indeed did not have a clear understanding of the course designers' intentions. As in the course described, course designers almost certainly believed that they had produced comprehensive and complete guidance about assessment. I wonder if the level of student anxiety and confusion increases with the weigting of the assignments - if that is the case, I would expect to see the greatest level of uncertainty yet in the coming weeks as we approach the End of Course Assessment.

In the example given, students were using conferencing for collaboration for their assessed tasks. They had only used it for collaborative work once before, so it was unfamiliar to them. This raised questions in my mind about whether this assessment therefore effectively reflected the ways of working which had been previously taught and experienced on the course, or the learning objectives as known to the students.

I wondered whether the difficulties in designing and preparing sufficiently detailed standard documentation might also be mirrored in the design of scaffolding, particularly of group activities. There will be variation in student skills, knowledge and experiences, and therefore scaffolding at any particular level may or may not suite the individual student. How can the individual 'turn off' scaffolding which is built into group activities? Do they just have to sit through (cruising, with little challenge or development) those activities for which they need less scaffolding, but which they are still supposed to engage in? There needs to be a balance between scaffolding and challenge (see Dearnley), but there also needs to be a balance in the way scaffolding is designed bearing in mind the range of experience of a mixed group of learners.

Jones, C. and Asensio, M. (2001) ‘Experiences of assessment: using phenomenography for evaluation’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol.17, no.3, pp.314–21.

Learner support in collaborative online learning

Rethinking learner support: the challenge of collaborative online learning’ (Thorpe, 2002) 

This paper looks at course design and learner support, and the blurring of the boundary between the two which occurs in online learning facilitated by computer-mediated communication. Traditionally learner support has been that which happens after course materials are developed. However, in courses with considerably less pre-planned material and greater emphasis on generation of course content through online interaction and collaboration, course design and learner support start to merge. 

'Learner support' in open and distance learning has a specific meaning, referring to:
  • guidance about course choice,
  • preparatory diagnosis,
  • study skills
  • access to group learning, etc. 
Key points:
  • Use of technology does not guarantee collaborative and constructivist approaches to learning - this depends on how the technology is used -> course design.
  • It is important to make sure that we do not lose the values of conversation and community in technicist approaches.
  • Learner support is not just provided of 'done to' the student; support is produced and consumed simultaneously - the learner must participate actively, as must the tutor/supporter.
  • Key functions of learner support are:
    • response, and
    • responsiveness, in relation to three essential and inter-related elements: identity, interaction and time/duration.
  • Thorpe defines learner support as 'all those elements capable of responding to a known learner or group of learners, before, during and after the learning process.' Therefore, pre-planned course materials or computer programmes, which cannot respond, cannot offer support.
  • Thorpe's three elements of learner support:
    • Identity - the supporter knows that the learner is a person with an identity. Identities also change in parallel with progress through a course, so support needs to be appropriately modulated.
    • Interaction - learner support is essentially to do with interpersonal interaction -> learner support is therefore also culturally specific. Interaction is key to all main theories of learner support
    • Time/duration - learner support is a 'live' process which has duration. It is defined by the actions of the learners and supporters involved, and so is a dynamic and not wholly predictable process.
  • Electronic communication has been used to provide another medium for support, rather than changing its nature. Online learner support is, however, increasing the frequency of learner to learner and learner to institution contact.
  • Online, collaborative approaches may be experiences as reducing an individual's freedom to study at their own pace (Thorpe, 1998).
  • Changes in course production (with increase in collaborative, constructivist designs) may mean lower initial production costs are feasible, but "costs during presentation are likely to increase, to sustain the IT infrastructure and realise the benefits of continual updating and learner support online".
  • "It takes considerable ingenuity, design and appropriate educational goals in order to achieve a course where interaction online is absolutely essential in order to pass, rather than a highly desirable enrichment.
I'm feeling slightly hazy about the scaffolding/support distinction. Thorpe argues that computer programmes can't offer support as they are unable to recognise human identity, but previous literature on scaffolding has suggested that computer tools can provide scaffolding...

Thorpe's comment on increasing costs is interesting. It stands in start contrast to the view/argument/sales pitch that online learning will be cheaper. Thorpe's arguments about the importance of community and constructivist learning are persuasive - if we move to cheaper to produce 'one size fits all' design then our learner support provision will undoubtedly be weakened, and our opportunity to develop engaging constructivist learning will have been missed.

Thorpe, M. (2002) ‘Rethinking learner support: the challenge of collaborative online learning’, Open Learning, vol.17, no.2, pp.105–19.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Strategies for scaffolding learner support

‘Learner support services for online students: scaffolding for success’ (Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlap, 2003)

This paper describes a number of learner support strategies implemented with the aim of reducing students' feelings of isolation, lack of self-direction and motivation, and which lead to higher drop-out rates for online courses (typically 20-50% according to the authors).

Key points:
  • Self-directed learning skills are developed in a social context, through interactions with peers, teams, communities of practice, etc.
  • To be successful, learners need the skills required for effective online learning; these skills need to be explicitly taught and supported.
  • "Most descriptions of learner support focus on systemic characteristics" (e.g. administrative, registration, etc) - the cognitive function (e.g. guidance, counselling, assessment, coaching etc) is often ignored. 
The authors describe the following programme, specifically designed to help students to choose the right course, to identify and develop the skills they will need, and to feel part of a community:
  • Diagnosing fit between learner and education provider
    • intake interview - discusses expected learning outcomes of a course and relationship to the learner's goals
    • online tools to enable self-assessment of eligibility and preparedness - students assess their competencies, learning objectives, short and long-term goals, etc.
    • diagnostic pre-assessment of learner's strengths, weaknesses, etc - used as a tool to identify strengths and areas for improvement
    • Learning Orientation Questionnaire from ( - determines readiness for online learning - looks at 3 factors: learner's emotional investment in learning, strategic self-directedness and independence/autonomy.
  • Orientation to the online learning experience - a 4-week course with a high level of structure, introducing learners to the community, communication tools and learning skills required. 
  • One-to-one advice provision - encouraging learners to articulate their learning goals and plans, helping them to understand their learning orientations, strengths and areas for improvement, advising on the exploration and selection of learning opportunities and encouraging learners to evaluate their own progress.
  • Access to a community of learners - allowing a sense of connection with the institution and with other learners - the learning community is based on the programme in which the learner is enrolled and includes threaded discussions, online chats, role plays, interviews, etc, organised by mentors on specific topic areas. More experienced learners move from the periphery to the centre of the community - "legitimate peripheral participation (Lave and Wenger, 1991). 
The authors cited DeVries and Wheeler (1996), arguing that students may drop out of a course because they do not feel part of the community. I found this hard to relate to. I feel that if I need the qualification or have any other motivation for my learning, other than a desire for academic community engagement, then I can't see that I would quit. I might be disappointed, and I might be benefiting less from the course than one which offered substantial interaction, but I feel I would still be likely to continue. Perhaps this is a reflection of my personality, generally fairly independent and self-motivated, or perhaps it's something to do with a degree's worth of distance learning which very little community engagement (OU 2002-2005 - face-to-face tutorials, and online group activities only in a couple of courses, and then only a fraction of the activities), so again, I got used to studying without a community around me. That said, I was aware that I wanted community, and the desire to be part of an academic community was one of the motivating factors in applying for my PhD at a campus-based university.

The orientation programme described seems a thorough start to getting students engaged in the community and the distance learning environment. It has a lot of similarities to early stages of Salmon's five stage model. However, the orientation seems to happen separately to the learner's subsequent courses, i.e. with a different community to that which the student will then interact with. The monthly rolling start of courses mean that students will not be progressing in parallel with a large cohort, so the community is deliberately created from students in related courses, but not all at the same stage. While this allows students with increasing expertise to take a more central role, including scaffolding new learners, Salmon's model is harder to apply as students will not be working on tasks together, and I was concerned that the progression through the model's stages may be interrupted if students develop early socialisation with their orientation group, but then have to move on to a different community for their main studies. For me, this provision of community access and development tools, joining students from a wider network, was also reminiscent of the unofficial OU student society online conferences, particularly psychology, which I experienced 5-10 years ago. These were entirely separate from the official courses, but included much inter- and intra- cohort sharing and discussion, and were extremely valuable as the courses at the time had little or no 'community' built in. 

I feel uncomfortable about the LOQ. Psychological instruments which are a) for sale b) include "testimonials" on their web site, and c) include the words "recent advances in neuroscience" in their overview blurb ring alarm bells for me. I don't have time to research the deep background of the LOQ... but was reminded of this ;-)

Perhaps I've been reading too much Ben Goldacre.

Ludwig-Hardman, S. and Dunlap, J.C. (2003) ‘Learner support services for online students: scaffolding for success’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning [online]

The current Western Governors University guidance on admission:

Networks of support in open learning

‘Student support in open learning: sustaining the process’ (Dearnley, 2003)

Dearnley explores the types of support required, and the structures which provide them, by adult, open learners. The context of the paper is around nursing education, offering conversion courses to otherwise have limited (if any) experience of higher education, but the findings are thought to be transferable to other adult learner groups. 

3 major supporting networks sustain learning and development: academic, professional and social, providing 3 types of support: practical, academic and emotional.

Key points:
  • Appropriate student support can make the different between student success and failure.
  • Student support plays a crucial role in sustaining the process of learning and development.
  • Students will experience life responsibilities (which are generally constant and predictable) and life events (which should be expected, but what or when is unknown; should be accommodated by curriculum designers).
  • Support networks need to interact - and the academic network (in particular) may need to react to changes in the other two (for example if social or professional support breaks down).
  • Social networks seem to form the foundation of all support networks - ""domestic harmony" is an essential ingredient in sustaining the motivation and ability for mature learners to continue studying".
  • Students rely on a complex mix of emotional and practical support from within their social and professional networks.
  • Students beginning from a received knowledge (i.e. the "authority" is always right, I must learn all the facts") orientation may be used to or expect the tutor/course to tell them what to think or do. Taking responsibility for their own learning can be a substantial challenge. 
  • Academic peers provide academic, practical and social support. Group tutorials in particular can be useful for friendship, developing trust and motivation. 
  • Good tutors provide support in the academic, emotional, practical and technical domains. The must be approachable and accessible - knowing that support is available can be more important than the means by which it is accessed. 
  • Development requires a mixture of challenge and support - too much or too little of either will reduce the potential for development.
Studying (particularly in parallel with a job or family commitments) requires a re-alignment of priorities and activities, especially domestic roles and responsibilities. I've been fortunate that my own circumstances have allowed this to happen quite smoothly, but I still strongly related to the statement that domestic harmony is necessary for motivation and continuation of studying - when other aspects of my life, (eg. health, relationships or work) have been harder, my energy for studying is very rapidly depleted.

Has our own tutor group supported me through this? I suppose it has given me the visibility that some of my peers are struggling in similar ways, and so reduced isolation. Practical study related help such as supplying links and resources has also been useful. However, ultimately I still feel like I have to get through this pretty much on my own wits - if I let myself slip so far behind that I cannot catch up, then that's my fault, so it's up to me to pull myself up by the bootstraps. That said, the experience of seeing wide fluctuations in the level of contributions to our online forum does help to remind me that I don't have to respond to every activity in complete fullness and perfectly on time - there's a wide variation in what is acceptable, after all, this is open learning at Masters level, and so responsibility for one's own learning management is an expectation.

The paper notes that students beginning from a received knowledge orientation are likely to be less tolerant of ambiguity, to collect facts and to be surface learners. While I think (hope!) I'm generally fairly well engaged in the knowledge construction this course affords, at times, perhaps when I'm tired, that effort of having to think, question, re-process for myself can feel hard. Similarly, if I "get" something straight away then I'm likely to be able to quickly move on to elaboration or application of the information, but if it was a concept I found more challenging then I can be inclined to slip into attempting surface learning. I think here that blogging really helps me, as it's often not until I try to start writing that my thoughts and reactions emerge... and then I write much more than planned (like this post which I meant to finish half an hour ago - a useful lesson in why these activities sometimes take me longer than I wish ;-) ).

Dearnley, C. (2003) ‘Student support in open learning: sustaining the process’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning [online]

Thursday, 2 June 2011

10 dimensions for designing learner support

'Learner support in distance and networked learning environments: ten dimensions for successful design’ (McLoughlin, 2002)

McLoughlin's paper explains scaffolding ("the effective intervention by a peer, adult or competent person in the learning of another person") and gives some of the history and background, particularly Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. 

The paper compares scaffolding in face-to-face learning with that which might be required in online and distance situations, and argues that the principles of learning support can still apply to these newer teaching and learning contexts.

McLoughlin refers to seven short pieces of advice:
  • Provide experience of the knowledge construction process
  • Provide experience in and appreciation of multiple perspectives
  • Create learning asks that are relevant and authentic
  • Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process
  • Embed learning in social experience
  • Encourage the development of multiple modes of representation
  • Encourage self-awareness of the knowledge construction process.
McLoughlin also argues that effective scaffolding is characterised by:
  • increasing the learners’ chance of succeeding in a task
  • helping them to do something they couldn’t accomplish on their own
  • moving them to a ‘new and improved zone of understanding’
  • helping them to operate independently.
McLoughlin provides ten design guidelines/dimensions of successful learner support. Each dimension is represented as a continuum with contrasting values at the ends. She points out that it is necessary to combine the individual dimensions in order to create effective instructional scaffolds. 
The dimensions are:

(1) Goal orientation (i.e. the goal of the support; support should be planned, not only when learners are having difficulties)
Highly focused <-----> Unfocused

(2) Adaptability (meet the needs of a diverse range of students)
Fixed <-----> flexible

(3) Accessibility (available when the student needs is - "just-in-time")
High <-----> Low

(4) Alignment (support is aligned with task goals and learning outcomes)
High <-----> Low

(5) Experiential value (learners' experiences allow them to plan, act, reflect and transfer knowledge of skills to new tasks/contexts)
High <-----> Low

(6) Collaboration (emphasis on social constructivism and use of web tools to support collaboration suggest this dimension is already well accepted)
Supported <-----> Unsupported

(7) Constructivism (support knowledge construction (strong scaffold), not memorization (weak scaffold))
Strong <-----> Weak

(8) Learning orientation (scaffolds allow learner to progress from teacher regulation to self-regulation and self-direction)
Teacher regulation <-----> Learner regulation

(9) Multiplicity (various types of scaffolding to support aspects of learning such as metacognition, reflection, articulation and comparison)
One-dimensional <-----> Multi-dimensional

(10) Granularity (high granularity allows learners to select and reconstruct the parts that are meaningful to them in a task)
Low granularity <-----> High granularity

For H807, we were supposed to read the ten dimensions, and pick any two we thought are important and think about why they are relevant to the learning materials that we would like to design. 
I think Alignment is an important dimension. No online course can succeed if it doesn't carefully articulate its goals, and follow these through the activities to appropriately fitting and related assessments (not necessarily only at the end either). It seems that it would follow that you need to also ensure support is aligned to your goals, tasks, activities and intended outcomes. 

Given the wealth of affordances of technologies available for online learners, and the benefits of studying surrounded by a community rather than alone, I would also pick Collaboration as an important dimension. It has clearly been designed in to every aspect of H807, the hyperbole around web 2.0 tools is primarily centered on opportunities for collaboration, and it supports the constructivist theories of learning which are now widely valued.

The paper suggests that scaffolds can be created by software, technological tools and web-based functionalities. Previously I conceived scaffolding to be something the might be provided by another person (peer, tutor, etc), or might be provided through the design of course materials (for example, interactive computer-based training with progressively lesser levels of hints or support provided). The idea that technological tools such as collaborative conferencing, document sharing, social forums or web 2.0 tools might offer scaffolds was new to me - but was something that was easy to accept, not least from observation of the provision of such methods throughout H807.

There are implicit value judgements in the ten dimensions, for example, that alignment should be high, adaptability should be flexible, etc, and the desirable ends of the continua (continuums?!!) don't all point in the same direction . It's unlikely you could design scaffolding which 'scored' highly on all ten dimensions, although overlaps exist, for example between Collaboration and Constructivism, and between Goal Orientation and Alignment. I think possibly the most helpful use of the ten dimensions might be in using them as a checklist to review, revise and improve scaffolding once it is designed. 

We were also supposed to answer the question "What are your first thoughts on how you’ll design your materials?". For me, this was an example of a poorly scaffolded activity! I didn't understand the context - was it supposed to relate to our End of Course Assessment designs, to the materials which we design in our jobs (in which case another assumption that H807 students are in e-learning roles), or to our general aspirations? Clearly I want to design the best materials I can, but they will be different in every situation. Having a framework like these ten dimensions in my toolkit is useful, but is a long way from knowing "how I'll design my materials".

McLoughlin, C. (2002) ‘Learner support in distance and networked learning environments: ten dimensions for successful design’, Distance Education, vol.23, no.2, pp.149–62.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Musing on Salmon's e-tivities

This post comes at a relatively early stage in my exploration of e-tivities, before I've attempted to design any e-tivities, or had an opportunity to participate in any developed by my H807 colleagues. However, a few thoughts have been bubbling up as I've sat with the readings recently...
E-tivities, or the five-stage framework is highly geared to group learning. There really isn't a place in it for the individual learner. While it may be the case that constructivist and situated learning theories tend to point towards learning in groups, and the web, web2.0 and all that it offers are also highly social, we will still have individual online and distance learners.
I'm wondering how e-tivities relate to child learners. While the five-stage framework has time and space for stumbling through early technical difficulties and early socialisation, I'm wondering whether children's social skills might indicate a natural ceiling within the framework, through which they will not be ready to progress without further maturity. I don't know where that ceiling would or might be, and given the online-savy of many children, perhaps their online social development will take a different trajectory to that traditionally observed in the face-to-face classroom, but it seems reasonable to expect differences in the level of tutor/moderator support required by children and adults, or come to that, generally more and less experienced learners.
I was also wondering how I might apply Salmon's framework to the e-learning I see developed in my job, and I haven't yet been able to make it match. That is despite desperately wanting more (appropriate, tailored, well-designed and purposeful) interactivity, more constructivist activities, to develop students as independent learners, to provide more formative feedback opportunities etc., etc. So, why doesn't it seem to fit? I think it's because so much of the training we develop is focused on learning procedures, for example bringing a generator into service, maintaining a pump, or interacting with a complex human-computer interface to set up highly sophisticated equipment. In cases where it's training in a procedure that's required, I'm not sure that community socialisation, knowledge construction and mutual sharing can help. While all of these might make for deeper learning with greater opportunities for elaborating on personal knowledge, there's also the issue of cost and length of training course. In cases where there is a constraint that you must train x people in y amount of time, it's possible that the extra time required might make e-tivities an unworkable solution - a point which is perhaps supported by Salmon's acknowledgement (see Workshop on E-Tivities, slide 10) that constructivist courses tend to need a longer course length and greater e-moderator input compared to instructivist courses.