Connective Learning: Challenges for Learners, Teachers, and Educational Institutions

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues
ETCJ Associate Administrator

The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL) has dedicated a special issue to “Connectivism: Design and Delivery of Social Networked Learning” (March 2011), edited by George Siemens (Athabasca University, Canada) and Grainne Canole (Open University, UK).

This special issue is not meant as a definitive sum on connectivism but rather, as Terry Anderson, editor of IRRODL, put it in his announcement on the Instructional Technology Forum mailing list:

… a challenge and request that we spend more effort into trying to understand if connectivism has approaches and delivers important insights and practical designs into the increasing networked learning context in which we function.

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Hybrid Education: The Interactive Class of Today and Tomorrow

Judith McDanielBy Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

I’m learning several new things in the classroom these days, thanks to the opportunity and necessity of online teaching. At the university, every class is assigned a learning management system course site. It is used for all course reserve materials, and as a teacher, I have gradually expanded to using automatically graded quizzes, posting class news and information, and now requiring online discussions. Hybrid classes are those that go beyond using the course site as a bulletin board. Hybrid classes incorporate a significant amount of online learning and interaction along with the face-to-face component of the class.

I teach face-to-face classes at a large public university and I usually have about 100 students in a class. It’s easy for a student to hide in that setting. I don’t know all the names, and even with a seating chart, it is hard for me to call on the right student with the right name! They also don’t know each other, for the most part. A shy student could go through the entire class without ever making a public comment, saying hello to a fellow student, or interacting with me beyond submitting papers and taking an exam.
a group of people discussing; picture artistically blurred
That’s changed now. Every student in my class is part of a small online discussion forum of eight or nine. Each student is required to post in response to regular prompts from me. At least twice during the semester I schedule time for these discussion groups to meet face-to-face. So students not only know that Brad posted an opinion that contradicted or supported their opinions, but they know who Brad is when they sit next to him in class or pass him on campus.

For the most part, students love this kind of interaction. Out of perhaps 1000 students I have engaged this way, I can remember only two comments from students who did not want to be required to express and support an opinion that could be identified as theirs.

Teacher Skills Critical for Success in Online Classes

John AdsitBy John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

The subject of this exchange (“Assuming That Teachers Aren’t the Primary Obstacle to Change . . .“) is near to my heart because it is a problem with which I have struggled for years. I have a somewhat different perspective, though. I chose Bonnie’s post for my reply because of its quotation of the Suzie Boss article.

For many years I have struggled to bring learning activities such as are described in that article to online education. I had to do so in many a different CMS, including WebCT, BlackBoard, eCollege, Moodle, Angel, uCompass, and Desire2Learn. My very first attempts, in 1995, were in pure HTML, writing the code in Pico and corresponding with students in Pine. (Anyone remember those?)

There is no question that the structures of CMS greatly interfered with my ability to do this, and I had to invent many “workarounds” to get something like what I wanted. I was also constrained by the concept of the least common denominator–maybe I had the technology to do something truly innovative, but if my students did not have the computing skills, tools, or bandwidth to participate, I could not use it.

I believe I was successful in doing this to a large extent, but that success uncovered a far larger problem.

When I was managing curriculum, both for an online high school and for a company in the private sector, I led the development of guidelines directing how to implement these kinds of thinking activities into curriculum housed in a CMS. The problem was finding course writers who could do it. I found that it was a rare course developer indeed who understood how to frame constructivist learning activities and authentic learning projects in the first place. If they could not do it in the classroom, there is no way they could do it within the structure of the CMS. For the most part, the teachers we hired started with the notion that a higher order thinking skill activity meant that students had to repeat given facts in a paragraph rather than check them off in multiple choice.

______________________________

It doesn’t matter whether it is a CMS, Web 2.0, or anything yet to be invented. A teacher who does not know how to create meaningful and innovative learning activities in the classroom will not be able to include them in any online environment either.

______________________________

Once we got meaningful activities designed, we encountered the next problem. The teachers who taught the courses we designed had no idea how to facilitate that kind of learning. They expected that they would only have to grade completed assignments, not interact meaningfully and skillfully with the learning process throughout the course. Without such facilitation, the students floundered.

I recently looked at a BlackBoard-based college course in which the students were supposed to work collaboratively on a group project. It was not going well, and the student complained that this online education stuff just didn’t work. When I looked at it, though, I saw that the fault lay with neither online education in general nor BlackBoard in particular. The project was so poorly set up by the professor that it could not possibly succeed, either online or in the classroom. Given 10 minutes, I could have rewritten it into a format that would have worked well.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a CMS, Web 2.0, or anything yet to be invented. A teacher who does not know how to create meaningful and innovative learning activities in the classroom will not be able to include them in any online environment either.

**

Bonnie Bracey-SuttonBonnie Bracey Sutton, 22 Oct. 2009, 9:20 am:

Lots of factors are involved. The way in which teachers are trained, and then there are the divides: the infrastructure divide, the digital divide, the depth of content divide, the cultural idea map on what constitutes knowledge and . . . the tools.

As someone else said, there are so many new ways of working, where is the time to meaningfully evaluate and use what works.

Click here for some suggestions for good practice.

But schools have a culture which is shaped by the leader of the school, most often the principal. So what happens in that space is a result of permission and understanding.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants a “revolutionary change” in teacher training, in college programs that train teachers for the classroom, programs that are responsible for educating at least 80% of the country’s teachers. In a speech prepared for delivery today, Duncan said that traditional teacher-preparation programs do not give educators enough classroom experience and do not guide them in using data properly. Officials are predicting about 1 million teaching vacancies over the next four years as veteran baby boomer teachers retire, and teacher training must become a priority.

steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, 22 Oct. 2009, 12:36 pm:

This speedy medium allows for the exchange of half-formed thoughts–even half-baked thoughts–which are subject to recall after others push back against them, so here goes with a half-formed half-baked thought stimulated by John Adsit’s fully thought out post.

The thought was stimulated by John’s reference to “constructivist activities.” I fancy myself a half-baked constructivist, yet I found myself bristling at John’s use of the term.

And after thinking through the other half of the thought, this is what I came up with:

When I was a college faculty person, I didn’t resist change, I fancied myself a change agent. I did, however, resist change suggested by others, particularly other change agents who looked at my course materials, sighed, and proceeded to suggest changes.

That is, teachers may not be resisting change. They may be resisting change agents.

Looking at my old self honestly, I concluded that I would have resented Lisa Lane and John Adsit and Tom and Jim and Bonnie setting up shop as experts who were qualified to look at my courses, find them wanting, and proceed to describe how they should be changed.

(All this before I left the classroom and set myself up as a full-time change agent.)

Was I one of a kind, or one of a very large type?


Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 24 Oct. 2009, 12:03 pm:

I remember most of what you are talking about. My growth and ease in education began with a funded project called Cilt.org. Click here for the link. This will take a little time to look at but it was teachers, professors, research people, companies and even more. We were funded. I participated in several teams. The research findings are there. Time for new funding? Cloud Computing? Participatory Culture? What else?

‘Jam on the American Graduation Initiative’ on Sep. 16

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

On 16 September 2009, from 8:00 am to midnight EST, Knowledge in the Public Interest will sponsor, with LaGuardia Community College as the lead college, Jam on the American Graduation Initiative, an online asynchronous “national conversation” to engage community college leaders, policy makers, and researchers. Convened by the Brookings Institute, The Education Commission of the States, and Jobs for the Future, the focus of the jam will be on President Obama’s recent announcement (see the YouTube video below) to invest $12 billion in America’s community colleges.

The primary topics for discussion will be (1) What we should know—the benefits and consequences—about what the administration is proposing and (2) How we can organize ourselves to make a difference for every community college in the U.S. The purpose of the jam is to influence the discussion on the president’s proposal. The result, according to organizers, will be a “tool kit for action,” which will be available a couple of weeks after the Jam.

The video runs for 29 minutes. The portion on the American Graduation Initiative begins at the 13:30 mark. The president talks about $12 billion in low-interest loans to rebuild and renovate community colleges, and he specifically mentions classrooms and buildings. But at the 25:00 mark, he mentions the electronic infrastructure that opens the door to virtual learning, and he specifically mentions online education for people with day jobs.

Some ETC editors and writers are planning to participate, and they will be sharing their thoughts with ETC readers in a special article that will be updated throughout the day on the 16th. If you aren’t attending but would like to share your thoughts on the proposed topics, please post them as comments to this article.

Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

The headline of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week caught my attention: “‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers from Classrooms.” The article, posted on July 20, 2009, is written by Jeffrey Young and is actually called “When Computers Leave the Classroom, So Does Boredom.”

Young writes that, according to studies, students think lectures and labs depending on computer technology are less interesting than those relying on discussion and interaction. PowerPoint presentations (one of the main areas of complaint), for example, are often used as a replacement for transparencies shown on an overhead projector and make no substantive difference in lesson delivery. An effective use of video technology should be to spark discussion and not be a replacement for a lecture.

Young says students also complain that these interactive classes require more effort than lectures. He says that students who are used to the lecture model are often resistant to this type of participatory learning. I can attest to this from my own computer lab with 1990's computers round a central tableexperience. I teach my face-to-face classes seminar-style with small group and large group activities and discussion. I will never forget one student telling me, “Instead of all this group stuff, why don’t you just tell us what you want us to know.” (Unfortunately, that student is now a teacher who probably lectures to his students.)

Despite its title, the article is not insisting that all technology and all computers should be thrown out of the classroom. It is making the point that the way technology is used in the classroom needs to be reassessed and changed so that it is not just being used to replicate the traditional modes of delivery.

Many of the authors in this journal have advocated just such changes (most recently, Judith Sotir in Two Steps Forward . . . Several Back and Judith McDaniel in What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching). As McDaniel pointed out, we need to “design for a structure that challenges and rewards.”

I agree that this attention to design is important not only in the online environment McDaniel was referring to but also in the face-to-face classroom with or without technology. As Young says, with stiff competition from online courses, face-to-face courses need to engage students so that they see a reason for being in the classroom.

Two Steps Forward . . . Several Back

Judith SotirBy Judith Sotir

I absolutely agree with Judith McDaniel (What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching, posted on July 19, 2009) that online learning of any sort requires a different dynamic than traditional teaching techniques. Although technology has moved from an interesting idea in the latter part of the last century to a defining role in this century, I don’t see schools necessarily following suit.

A good example is a recent workshop I did for staff from a local school district. The instructors specifically requested a workshop on “Using Blogs and Wikis in the Classroom” and were willing to give up some summer sun hours to attend. The tech coordinator (or facilitator, since the position of technology coordinator was eliminated and a principal stepped in to fill the gap) was more than willing to set up the workshop. However, when I got to the school (and remember, the TOPIC was blogs and wikis), I found that the firewalls blocked all access to any form of social websites, including blogs and wikis. I spent a good amount of time with the IT department getting access to a limited number of blogs and had to verify the content of those (even my own, by the way) I was given access to.

laptop with the words The Internet crossed out by a red St Andrew's Cross

Even after gaining access, throughout the workshop, that access was spotty, as links were sometimes allowed and sometimes blocked. From the instructor viewpoint, wanting to bring these tools into the classroom was questionable, given that experience. While filtering websites is important to schools, better dialogue is needed to allow instructors the access they need to teaching tools while still maintaining control of questionable content.

As a former school board member, I recall similar issues in the late’ 80s and ’90s with the IT department, administrators, and even board colleagues regarding having access to the Internet itself from the classrooms. While they saw the value of administrators and staff using the Internet, they balked at allowing the same access in the classrooms. I understand well the frustration of instructors who want to use these tools with their students but run into brick walls when they try.

While not identical, limiting access to Internet resources strikes me as similar to banning books. Instead of allowing instructors to develop educational content as needed, a concern from a limited group blocks all access to these sites. A better dialogue needs to be developed, including perhaps even a faculty liaison committee to bring these concerns to the proper channels. Simply assuming that teaching with computers is the same as traditional teaching keeps students from the tools they need to succeed in the real world.

What Can Colleges Learn from Online K-12 Schools?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

K-12 school systems, such as California Virtual Academies (or CAVA), are providing completely online programs. Obviously, colleges are very different from K-12 schools, but are there lessons to be learned from the school model? At a time when budgets are being slashed, colleges are forced to look closely at their online programs as a possible means to reduce instructional costs. If existing programs aren’t as effective as they ought to be, colleges may want to examine K-12 models for elements that could be adapted to college programs.

In this article, I provide resources and links to information about CAVA and how California public schools are approaching completely online learning. After reviewing the information and, perhaps, conducting your own research, please join the discussion on the question, What can colleges learn from online K-12 school systems such as CAVA? To post a comment, click on the title of this article. This will take you to a page that displays the article, the ongoing discussion, and a box to compose your comment. Alternately email your comment to me at jamess@hawaii.edu, and I’ll post it for you.

The California Virtual Academies

The California Virtual Academies is a completely online K-12 charter public school system. CAVA is fully-accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Schools (ACS) of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). In place of an actual campus, the State loans students a complete computer system and textbooks, and pays for broadband connection. “There are no buildings to heat or maintain so costs per student are low. Kids are assigned a teacher and software links them to their class and curriculum. There is also daily attendance and homework.”

According to the general FAQs, “The K-8 program is self-paced and flexible within the parameters specified by state law. The high school program is a combination of self-paced work and scheduled lessons and activities.”

Audio excerpts of Len Ramirez, KPIX reporter, from the video:

Click here for the video.

(Sources: Len Ramirez, KPIX reporter, “Virtual High School” [CBS News 4.7.09] and “More Calif. Kids Schooled at ‘Virtual Academy’” [CBS5  3.9.09]; the California Virtual Academies site)