Let’s paint some happy little trees!

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Workshop: Changing the Learning Landscape: Online Learning in the Social Sciences
Presented by: The Higher Education Academy, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, National Union of Students, the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), and JISC.
Date: 1 May 2013
Venue: Senate House, University of London
Attended by: Becky Blunk, Subject Liaison Librarian

Sessions:

What makes a good MOOC?
Helena Gillispie, Assoc. Dean for Learning, Teaching and Quality, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of East Anglia

Helena provided an introduction and short history of MOOCs, describing them as starting to be formulated and produced about six years ago, having been manifested from work related to Open Education Resources.  The majority of MOOCs being publicised were those developing from higher education institutions in the United States, often those with large sums of money or endowments that could be used to fund the projects. 

At the University of East Anglia (UEA), MOOCs are currently being investigated and developed through Future Learn, with the aim to find a platform and process that will work best for the universities objectives, constraints, and goals. 

Helena presented the group with the idea that one of the challenges in the 21st century is “what to do” with all of the technology surrounding us (i.e. academics and students)?  There was a comparison of availability to information only 20 years ago and today.  Students in the past were highly dependent on print and CD-ROM materials, with limited database access.  Due to the nature of accessibility today, Helena presented the idea that “anyone” is now able to become a “writer” or “publisher,” with regard to the internet and world wide web, and therefore suggested that, as educators and academics, we should look into turning our students into aggregators.

Introducing that idea lead to a short overview of digital natives and digital immigrants, including the notion that those born into the digital culture would be able to speak the language and blend in with the elements of the environment, whereas immigrants, or older generations, would never be full natives and would always speak with an “accent” in the digital culture.  It was discussed that, not only have digital natives had 24/7 access to information over a range of devices, their methods for accessing the information has crossed over into other parts of their lives.  For example, students may go to the library to work on assignments or study, but they are often still connected to their social world via smartphones and push notifications.  Students also often have numerous tabs (Facebook, Pintrest, email, etc.) open on their computers whilst working, enabling them to click in and out between their academic and social personas. 

This idea then lead to the notion that students attending HEs now have had a type of “chopped-up” education whereas they have been able to almost rehearse for their subject-specific assessments, rather than develop information skills that reach across the board, such as critical and cognitive thinking skills, reflection, and application of knowledge. 

I found this idea particularly interesting, as I’ve often heard and referred, the American secondary education system as being one where educators are pressured to “teach the test,” wherein students are not encouraged to delve beyond the content presented to them or critically analyse information.  In my opinion, this does not facilitate the student with the skills necessary to have an advantage once entering higher education, however, I’ve not been convinced that it matters much in the first year of university study anyway,

Helena then attributed Prensky as presenting the idea that digital natives have shorter attention spans with regard to linear activities, such as completing modules and courses, and react more positively to an interactive experience, thus contributing to the notion that MOOCs will prove to be useful means of sharing content and course material.

It was then posed that MOOCs are able to provide more than just complementary material to course modules: they could also provide outreach to members of society not currently involved in the academic environment.  I have a few opinions about this, but on a whole, I am not convinced that the creation and use of MOOCs qualify for outreach.  I agree that providing course materials freely over the internet does allow for those who would not have access to lectures given by professors at Ivy League schools in the United States contributes to encouraging members of society not engaged in formal university study to enhance their knowledge; however, I believe it stops there.  It is a noble idea to want to provide a freely available educational experience, but there is no evidence to indicate that “society” will become more enlightened as a result.  Contributing to and completing a MOOC seems like a challenge for those in society who are struggling to pay their bills or raise their children.  This is not to say that I don’t like MOOCs, in fact, I think they are brilliant, but I am not naïve enough to believe that they are capable of providing any kind of meaningful outreach.

Helena explained that one issue facing MOOC developers or those involved in the process is that MOOCs have no business model, therefore, it is a difficult sell for investment.  How are MOOCs supposed to generate profit when they are available without fees?  Not to mention, the completion rate of MOOC modules is only about 5%, with the most common reasons for incompletion include the amount of time needed to complete, poor course design, hidden costs (books), and lack of credential upon completion.

Another point made was that not all MOOCs widen participation and that the majority of students involved in United States-generated MOOCs are not living in the US, so if a university is going to invest in developing a MOOC, it is not likely that the people who enrol in the courses will eventually enrol in university courses. 

To conclude, Helena explained that becoming involved with MOOCs has proven to be interesting and challenging, and that one of the issues related to developing MOOCs was that educators will need to examine how learning pedagogies best fit into using digital technologies.  Because MOOCs are so flexible and individual, there are a number of learning pathways to be considered.

In a general sense, I think MOOCs are wonderful.  What could go wrong with organizing courses that are open for anyone to take- other than the amount of work that goes into them without any real measurement of their success?  I see MOOCs, however, as being something of a luxury for people who are already interested in learning or in education itself.  Perhaps this is ignorant of me to say, but when I think about MOOCs, I think about my husband and I using them to have a discussion- and that’s where it ends.  I don’t suppose that they would have any further implications for me on a personal level. 

I’ve heard much about how MOOCs are supposedly going to put academics out of business, but there is no evidence that this is even possible, especially when you look at the completion rate.  People are simply just NOT going to forego a certifiable or for-credit course over one that has no measurable degree.  I wouldn’t.  This is a case where I start to think that some academics and libraries feel as though they OWN information and the way it is supposed to be disseminated.  That is just not in line with the digital age, and if people cannot adapt to how information access is evolving, they are in the wrong profession.

Open Education: Practices and Resources
Dr. David Mossley, HE Consultant

Dr. Mossley discussed surveying the conceptual field of OERs, defining concepts and debating contested issues about reusability, identities and cultures.

Dr. Mossley began by suggesting that one of the greatest benefits of OERs is that they allow for less time spent on developing resources.  He defined OERs as being digital materials that can be used, re-used and repurposed for teaching, learning, research and more, made freely available online through open licenses such as Creative Commons. OER include a varied range of digital assets from course materials, content modules, collections, and journals to digital images, music and video clips.  He also mentioned that part of using OERs meant that one becomes involved with the process of engaging with the materials, including sharing materials that you have created, either individually or in groups with other teachers and learners and adapting them with modifications. 

David Wiley’s four “R” framework related to OERs was then presented: Reuse, Revise, Remix, Redistribute.  Dr. Mossley suggested that what makes this framework and OERs, in general, work were the processes and critical thinking involved in changing, adapting and revising sources to make them applicable to the individual engaging with them.  It was at this point that Dr. Mossley freely admitted that openness is not without its problems, especially when looking at how we define “openness,” with specific regard to those without access to information due to a number of factors, such as economic status, social and technological issues, etc.  Dr. Mossley then advised delegates to group together to discuss the issues related to defining openness and the challenges of adapting to the use of OERs.

Finally, we were asked to consider the following questions:

  1. What are your institutional strategies for examining disciplinary use of resources to overcome barriers (discipline, department, institution, pedagogical beliefs, academic labour, external factors) of engagement with OERs?  What recommendations would you make?
  2. How would you promote your initial definition of OER to promote it to your colleagues in your own discipline?

I thought about these questions over lunch on the day of this workshop.  I love OERs!  They are a wonderful way to collaborate without collaborating.  That is not the only reason why I like them, but it is one of the biggest selling points for me.  As an early career librarian, I count on the work and resources of my colleagues and very much appreciate any help I can get as far as passing along good practice.  It seems silly to me to work on a session or a workshop without trying to seek the help or established work of other people who have already been in my shoes.  Using OERs is definitely about the interaction with the material you plan to use.  I love being able to find something that worked well for another university, and then altering it to serve my purpose for the session I am going to present. 

Not only do OERs speed up the process of preparing for sessions, it also takes a large amount of stress away from the entire planning process.  Instead of wondering where to start, what elements to include or how to structure the session, I can compare OERs and use them in my own mind mapping or brainstorming process. 

As far as OERs are concerned, I would promote the use of them by stressing that, if you can find a resource you consider to be good or useful, you can then work to make it even better because you are able to tailor it to the needs of your students, lecturers, etc.  So you are, essentially, taking something good and just making it better.  How do you go wrong with that?

Remaining sessions:

Making better use of the VLE and associated technologies
Santanu Vasant, Learning & Development Centre, Imperial College London

Due to my previous training session at UCS with our Elevate Team, there was not much presented in this session that I was not aware of, however, it was interesting to see the academics in the room take note of the content being presented. 

Santanu began the session with asking the delegates to use an app called Mentimeter so that he could take a quick poll of the people in the room.  This tool was interesting to look at, as the screen was constantly changing as people “voted,” much like the way the Elevate team have lecturers make use of clickers in the classroom. 

Santanu presented the idea that most VLEs are currently being used as repositories for course work, and that there are numerous tools available that tutors and lecturers are not making use of.  Santanu stated that this is problematic because students are paying high fees and expect to be getting something from their tuition, therefore, the VLE should be pushed to its limits by lecturers and that the use of different tools would likely result in a spectrum of good practice, including a more active, collaborative student learning environment.  By using the wide range of tools available on VLEs, lecturers would subliminally challenge students to become more independent and reflective. 

Santunu suggested that academics take more time to discuss good practices on the VLE in team meetings and to think about whom lecturers need to seek out in order to develop their ideas for the VLE and follow through with action.  

Open Resource & Accessibility: Bringing it together
David Foord, A6 Training & Consultancy Ltd.

The main point I had to take away from this session was that it is important to understand and use creative commons licenses when you produce works from OERs or when you upload your own material on to the VLE, blogs, etc.  Because I previously attended a week-long webinar series discussing Creative Commons Licensing, there was not much discussed in this session that was new to me.  Again, it was surprising to see the number of academics in the room in which it was apparent that they were not well-versed on the existence or need for CCL.  David very aptly pointed out that it was important that academics, especially those producing content onto the VLE cite their photo credits where necessary.  His point was that if lecturers expect students to produce work with referenced sources, the lecturers should also be following that practise and setting a good example.

Using OERs in undergraduate history
Dr. Richard Hawkins, University of Wolverhampton

This session focused on examining the use of OERs in the history discipline, specifically the JISC-funded Newsfilm Online Digitisation Project, and the British Library and Library of Congress digitised historic newspaper collections. 

Students were required to use sources from the OERs in order to successfully complete an assignment, with the learning objective to facilitate a broader range of resources used that students may not seek independently. 

Not only were students encouraged to explore perspectives across time, but also in relation to culture and world views.  By requiring students to make use of these resources, it was found that many of the students continued to access these resources for subsequent assignments, contributing to a wider understanding and application of course material and concepts.

Changing Your Learning Landscapes
Stephen Gomez, Higher Education Academy

For the final session of the workshop, the delegates were asked to form groups again.  We were all given large pictures of landscapes and were asked to think about a group of users we’d like to consider.  We were then asked to place the users within the landscape itself and be prepared to discuss our reasoning. 

My group was given a landscape of an industrial site with some train tracks and pipelines.  We were also given a landscape of mud huts as an alternative.  After twenty long minutes, we presented our metaphors to the rest of the group.  It was a very light-hearted session and it was another opportunity for me to hear about the perspective of academics with regard to their students and where they see opportunities for change within their teaching approaches. 

This was a pain-staking session.  Because my group was mostly academics, they have a different point of view with regard to students and where they see them in the digital landscape.  I honestly did not get much out of this group session, but I understand how it could be extremely helpful for those who think more visually/metaphorically.  It was interesting to hear what the other group members had to say and then think about that idea on my own- as I often disagreed with it. 

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