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Definitely HandsOn … December 2, 2014

Posted by ianinsheffield in CPD, research.
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hands on

creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Building Unity 1000 Families: http://flickr.com/photos/buildingunity/303497031

This post might go some way towards explaining why (once again!) posts have lost their regularity recently. For the last five weeks I’ve been participating in the 3rd edition of the HandsOnICT MOOC and it’s rather sucked up my time. I’m not a ‘serial MOOC dropout‘ who visits to get a flavour of the content, the practice or the community; if the topic being covered will address a need for me, then I’m in and will do my utmost to see it through. And so it proved with HandsOn – Design Studio for ICT-based Learning Activities (DS4ICTL); I committed to the full five weeks … and full-on it proved!

This was no gentle stroll through a few interesting creative exercises or discursive mental conundrums. No watching a few talking heads, then answering a few auto-marked questions or writing a reflective post or two. DS4ICTL is delivered through a Moodle implementation, (supported by ILDE) consists of five modules of study, each with several activities including peer mentoring, facilitated by a group of experienced online tutors, in seven language streams and using Open Badges to credential the learning. Phew! I was attracted to learning about the design-based approach when creating online/elearning activities. There seemed to be plenty in there that might prove both fresh and useful in supporting me in my role in school. Additionally I’d be working on a project I needed to undertake as part of my work schedule. Good authentic, grounded learning then.

During the first week, the activities sought to familiarise us with the work environments, discussion and reflection areas and introduce us to our peers. Then over subsequent weeks we chose a project, explored the context within which it would be developed and brought some of the principles of design into realising our resource. Many of these principles were new to me and required some degree of persistence to become more comfortable with them. Perhaps that’s what contributed to the time it required each week to work through the activities? I’d decided I was prepared to allow five-ish hours a week, but actually it often transpired to be more. This was a MOOC; there was no compunction for me to do that, but somehow this was different. It mattered. It felt … professional. (And I mean that in several ways)

Given the amount of time it required, one would hope I gained something from the experience and of that, I have no doubt:

  • It extended my learning – I became more familiar with how to use design principles in creating learning activities; about using personas, scenarios and prototyping; heuristic evaluation; andragogy and heutagogy.
  • It extended my personal learning network – despite the large numbers in the MOOC, there were fewer in the English language stream and only a handful who were clearly out to complete in the scheduled time. Since we were often exchanging views and ideas with the same people, it allowed a greater degree of familiarity than we might usually expect in a MOOC.
  • It developed my skills – we worked in several environments for different aspects of the course, thereby gaining a breadth, if not depth, of experience in new workspaces.

I was impressed by how quickly issues were resolved, either by the tutors who were clearly committed to the course, or by peers, who were clearly switched on. As a result, I now have the framework within which to build a resource I’ve been meaning to produce for some while. It’s sufficiently developed (and hopefully robustly designed!) and ready to deploy, so that colleagues will hopefully be enjoying the benefits in the very near future.

In addition to the demanding time commitment, there were other aspects of the course I found tough:

  • Maintaining station within the course timeline. I found that when I slipped slightly behind, despite the notion that participants could work at their own pace, I floundered. This was because I felt out of place; uncomfortable commenting on the posts of those further forward and less in touch with those following behind. Furthermore, committing to supporting and learning from those at the same point in the course with you meant you had less time to devote to those further back on the timeline; those who might in fact benefit from a little extra encouragement.
  • Peer mentoring. Commenting on people’s posts in discussions is fine; I’m used to that, but providing the formal feedback using a scoring rubric was much harder. Applying the rubrics were fine, but trying to offer supportive feedback when criteria hadn’t been met, especially when you’re dealing with fellow professionals who you don’t know, isn’t easy. There’s the temptation to be more lenient than perhaps we might with our students; after all it’s only a MOOC that someone’s taking part in out of interest. It’s hardly a high-stakes environment. On one shoulder I had the hard-nut angel that was my professional integrity and on the other the sweet angel who sees no value in upsetting someone for no reason. Who won? Well you’ll have ask those whose contributions I evaluated. I’d also add here the frustration I’d sometimes feel if an assessment had asked the learner to provide links to ‘a’ and ‘b,’ but the learner only provided ‘b’ with no explanation why ‘a’ was missing. Obviously there’s no compulsion to complete everything or even anything within the MOOC, but when a peer is relying on you being clear in order to fulfil their own obligations … well, like I said, frustrating.
  • Pitching responses appropriately. Linked with feedback I also found it harder than usual knowing how to pitch responses to people’s comments. When someone participates in a course in a language which is not their first, I have nothing but admiration, though that naturally demands more thought when responding to their contributions, so as not to offend. (Good experience and useful practice though, given the increasing number of students we’re welcoming from overseas).
  • Navigating the different environments. It wasn’t that I couldn’t cope with this, so much as finding it frustrating flipping from one back to the other … especially when the navigation didn’t ease those transfers (due to technical reasons arising caused by having to have different language streams). Although I managed, I suspect a MOOC novice, or someone less confident with online learning could find it rather overwhelming or intimidating.

In summary then, DS4ICTL proved to be a valuable experience; perhaps the most useful MOOC I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. It was well designed, well organised and well supported. All credit to the designers and facilitators; it must have been a mammoth undertaking. I’d suggest either reducing the content slightly, or spreading it out over an extra week, just to reduce the weekly demand. If the demographic of potential participants is those who are reasonably well along the digital literacy continuum, then it’s probably pitched well, but it’s a little too complex for novice learners I’d argue. If there was another HandsOn MOOC on a different topic, I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up.

The badges earned through the course can be viewed here. As with all digital badges, they have metadata attached enabling a viewer to establish who the issuer was and under what circumstances. Might have been helpful if the learning outcomes for each award could also be listed and even some of the evidence? Most of the badges also transferred across to my Backpack.

What if the World goes “Meh?” November 3, 2014

Posted by ianinsheffield in Musings.
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creative commons licensed (BY-NC-ND) flickr photo by Singing With Light: http://flickr.com/photos/tattoodjay/4129779298

Was catching up a few podcasts over the weekend and dropped on one from the DS106 series on Radio Edutalk. Until now I’d not picked up any episodes in the series, since I’ve not been involved in DS106. The episode I caught was the Good Spell Episode 16 with Mariana Funes and John Johnston who were discussing the effects of audience, or lack thereof, when you’re producing online artefacts. The hosts were talking about how it sometimes feels to post creations online for review, and then get no feedback. As Mariana put it:

Sometimes you might invest a huge amount of time on something and the World goes “Meh.”

As a blogger this is certainly an issue you have to come to terms with; if a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to hear it yada yada. Perhaps it’s simply an aspect of our web literacy we need to develop; how to cope with criticism, praise, constructive feedback … or even nothing at all.

It prompted me to think about the work our students produce and what the effects might be on less mature learners if we don’t respond adequately to the effort they’ve invested. It’s clearly got the potential to do far more harm than simply fail to help them make progress with that particular task. Their whole outlook on learning could be affected. I wonder if we take that into account when we’re  worrying about the ‘marking’ load?

After this I’ll certainly be picking up a few more DS106 episodes.

“Storm” … or just blustery conditions? October 29, 2014

Posted by ianinsheffield in Musings, research.
blustery condtions

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by ell brown: http://flickr.com/photos/ell-r-brown/5946492853

My sense is that ICT, and the ICT community of which we are all a part, is at a crucial time in its evolution, as is the role of ICT in the education system

I was minded of the above when reading Nick‘s recent post on Learn eNabling in which he draws attention to the rising ‘tide of opinion and commentary’ asserting that technologies in schools have failed to make a positive impact on student learning or achievement. But those people are right. The evidence that technology has a significant impact on achievement or learning is notable by its absence. Or perhaps more accurately, by its lack of consensus.

Here’s why I think that might be. As Nick also suggested

…it is often difficult to establish hard evidence of improved pupil attainment as a result of using ICT. Isolating the impact of ICT from all other factors that can affect achievement can be problematic.

Balanskat et al, 2006

So the research is actually quite hard, or in some cases, even flawed.

The question of whether or not ICT has made significant impacts on a wide variety of student learning outcomes is still in doubt because of the variety of assumptions made in many research studies and the limited reliability of some research methods.

Cox and Marshall, 2007

For example

The connection between the use of ICT and the achievement of students is only valid when the means of measurement is congruent with the means of teaching and learning. In some studies there is a mismatch between the methods used to assess the effects of ICT on student achievement and on how ICT is actually used in the classroom.

Trucano, 2005

And how many studies go this far?

In order to understand the impact of ICT on learning, a holistic approach is needed that takes into account the socio-economic context, the learning environment, and teacher training

Punie et al, 2006

and I’d also add to that institutional strategies, goals and norms; external assessment regimes linked with school and teacher accountability;  and of course ongoing political agendas.

If we take a step back for a moment, are we really saying that the increased levels of technology in schools have resulted in “no significant difference?” If so then the massive levels of investment have indeed been for naught. (Here I should point out that there is no question that substantial sums of money have been and are being spent unwisely by faculties, schools, local authorities and central government, for a whole host of reasons … but that’s another post) However I think that technologies have indeed made a difference by ‘adding value’ to the learning experience and they have done so by smoothing communications and improving the connections our students can make; they have provided easy access to vast repositories of data and information; they have provided channels through which students can ‘publish’ evidence of their learning to an authentic audience; and have given learners the tools to take control of their learning. They have made what would previously have been impossible or very difficult, achievable, manageable and (relatively) easy. I readily accept that not all students, teachers or schools are doing all of the aforementioned, but many are well on the way, so perhaps this is where the impact should be sought? If seeking a difference in students attainment isn’t a realistic endeavour, then maybe we should be looking for where learning technologies can actually make a difference?

The naysayers and righteous sceptics may indeed have a point … or perhaps they’re missing it?

Ironically, it may be that the poorly resourced, inadequately trained, poorly conceptualised and inadequately operationalised forms of ICT usage so far on offer have sapped teachers’ interests, yet it is because the ICT has not been utilised as an integral part of a transformed classroom learning experience that it has failed.

Perhaps as eNOOBs, we really do have our work cut-out? Or perhaps these are the challenges to which we need to rise?

I’ll close by providing attribution for the quotes which bookended this post – Professor David Reynolds – Building an ICT Research Network Conference2001!

Cox, M.J., Marshall, G., 2007. Effects of ICT: Do we know what we should know? Education and Information Technologies 12, 59–70.
Balanskat, A., Blamire, R., Kefala, S., 2006. The ICT Impact Report: A Review of Studies of ICT Impact on Schools in Europe. European SchoolNet.
Punie, Y., Zinnbauer, D., Cabrera, M., 2006. A review of the impact of ICT on learning. Working paper prepared for DG EAC. Seville: JRC-IPTS (Joint Research Centre–Institute for Prospective Technological Studies).
Trucano, M., 2005. Knowledge Maps: Impact of ICTs on Learning & Achievement.

Projecting October 21, 2014

Posted by ianinsheffield in research, Teaching Idea.
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Our Year 11 students are drawing their AQA Level 2 Projects to a close, so as they write their reflections I thought it might be an opportune moment to ask them about their experiences.  I spent a few minutes with the eight or so who kindly volunteered their time; the audio interviews can be found on the SHS ‘Look Who’s Talking’ blog, but here I’ll try to provide a synopsis.

…after a short taster:

As might be expected, some settled on a topic quite quickly, already having an idea in mind. Others needed a little more prompting, but the sources from which they drew their inspiration were varied and included books; their supervisors; lessons and subjects; news and magazine articles and the arts.

During the course of their studies they enjoyed the sense of freedom the Project provided, whether in being able to follow a subject about which they were passionate, being able to work in a way and at a pace that suited them, being able to delve more deeply into a topic than was usually possible or having a choice about the way they could present what they had learned. Even writing an essay became more fulfilling since it was on a topic about which they cared and they had carte blanche in the contents and format. Although presenting to an audience caused some measure of stress and induced nervousness in some, having the chance to share your findings proved particularly rewarding, as did working with a teacher on a ‘more equal footing.’ Several reaching the end when the sense of achievement became palpable since it represented the culmination of so much effort over such a sustained period.

This was summed up succinctly by one interviewee as

…to be your own boss and learn what you wanted to learn freely and not have to stick with the curriculum.

Certain aspects of their study came to them less easily and proved tough to overcome, like time-management, the apparent mountain of work, making sense of an abundance of information and overcoming issues with lack of motivation. Yet the interviewees recognised that meeting these challenges provides benefits they would carry forward either into the next years of their education or across into other subjects they’re currently studying. They had become more committed to managing their time, working to deadlines and had become more self-disciplined. They noted how much better they had become at constructing an essay in other subjects and  that the strategies they used to form an argument had improved. Their self-confidence, patience and persistence had all been boosted, reassuring them of their capability to work independently.

Although no questions in the interview asked how technology had been employed in their Projects, several comments suggested how integral it had been to their success, yet made no song and dance about it. To the students, it was just one of the tools they used and so perhaps provides evidence for the degree to which technologies are increasingly embedded? The Internet clearly played a big part, providing access to information (and people!) they might otherwise not have been able to access so readily. However this was often done using more sophisticated techniques than are commonly employed e.g. Google Scholar, Google Books, using advanced search terms and searching YouTube. It’s all very well to bemoan the ease with which students have access to information through the Internet, but if that information is not available in their school or public libraries, then the Internet might indeed be the only option available.

In thinking what we might learn from these observations, I wonder to what extent the outcomes can be extrapolated to our other students and their studies? Those who signed up for the Project are largely well-motivated, capable learners who clearly rose to the challenges they faced; would all students be capable of doing so? Would they want to?

If there is sufficient value in what Project students learned and gained in terms of skill development, then perhaps it is worth relinquishing some of the time we spend on content coverage and give it over to extended project work and passion-based learning? However we need to know the costs as well as the benefits of learning in this way, so we’re better placed to be able to make those kinds of judgements. Although the Level 2 Project is not “Project-based Learning” in the strictest sense, some of the research emerging in this area might begin to inform our deliberations:

Using real-life problems to motivate students, challenging them to think deeply about meaningful content, and enabling them to work collaboratively are practices that yield benefits for all students.

Beyond the Book October 14, 2014

Posted by ianinsheffield in Musings.
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Yesterday I had the great pleasure to attend a talk by Kate Pullinger entitled ‘Beyond the Book,’ part of the Digital Fiction strand of the ‘Off the Shelf’ Sheffield Literary Festival. Kate is the power behind Inanimate Alice, an online transmedia story; the networked novel ‘Flight Paths‘ and the 14-18 Now project ‘Letter to an Unknown Soldier.’ In her talk Kate provided more detail on each of the aforementioned projects, outlining how digital technologies have enabled hybrid forms of literature and facilitated a greater degree of participation and collaboration.

kate pullinger talk

creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by ianguest: http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/14917070024

I found what Kate had to say fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. Fascinating because of my interest in the different ways we are appropriating technologies, specifically in learning, but also in creative endeavours. I guess I was unsettled due to the three different ways in which literature affects me: as Head of eLearning and someone who promotes and supports the use of digital technologies; as a writer, albeit not one of fiction; and as a reader of fiction. Clearly then I lean towards the notions Kate outlined and am keen to learn from those who use technologies in new ways, so that I am better informed when advising and supporting colleagues and students. As a writer of non-fiction, I’m often trying to convey a message; sometimes that’s in support materials for others, project proposals, evaluations or reflective pieces. Whenever appropriate and where it enhances the message, I try to employ different media, but here is where the tension begins to emerge. If I know who my audience will be, then that may constrain me in serving their needs. For example, in providing an introductory guide to a new software application, a five-minute video screencast might make the most sense, for all sorts of reasons. Yet if my audience prefers paper-based, ‘recipe’-style guidance, then that is what I’m obliged to provide. In producing a report of a particular project, whilst I might feel audio interviews with some of the participants provides a rich narrative, the readers of the report might be more predisposed to plain textual summaries. As a writer then, I’m constrained creatively to some extent by the boundaries imposed on me by my audience. I wonder if writers of fiction are similarly hobbled.

The tension becomes heightened when I reflect on my preferences as a reader. I’m now on the other side of the fence and become the recipient of literature written by others. How do I feel when given the choice of opting for stories delivered in different ways through different media? As Kate introduced samples of Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths, despite being impressed by how they had been produced and the ways in which they were being used and enjoyed, I couldn’t help but feel some degree of conflict. In an attempt to establish why, I thought about how I read and what my expectations are from a story, which is doubtless a rather personal thing for each reader. For me, good fiction should transport me (or my mind?) somewhere else and whilst it might not be quite what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow,’ when immersed in a story, the passage of time melts away. I feel part of the story, either as observer or participant. I control the pace, re-read when necessary or even skip forward a line or two! The words on the page act as a bridge between me and my vicarious participation in the story through the characters. I’m able to do that because I have become familiar (and comfortable) with the linear way in which text is presented in the pages of a book. Images might supplement the story, though should be used in such a way that they don’t conflict with those the reader has generated within their imagination. One example might be the maps that Tolkien included to help the reader appreciate the geography of Middle. At least that’s what I first thought, but then my mind went back to my younger years and my enjoyment of children’s and superhero comics. I felt no less immersed then where the text was an equal partner of the imagery, though even those texts observed the same conventions of linear flow. Although Inanimate Alice for example, flows in a linear fashion, I am required to relinquish some element of control of pace to the writer, only able to move forward when the media have finished their display. Perhaps it’s that, for me, the media add nothing to the story and may even detract from it? Whilst I’m trying to conjure mental pictures of Alice, her surroundings, her relationships with her family and so on, I’m being distracted by background music, flashing images and split screen displays. I wonder if there’s a link here with gaming environments, or at least those with a clear narrative, characters and plot. Gameplay often allows progress through the narrative as a result of exploration, theory testing, experimentation and repetition. I’m not a gamer at all, so have no experience of navigating through different forms of narrative, so I wonder if someone who enjoys gaming might be more inclined towards digital fiction than I? So many questions!

Perhaps my problem has been that I’ve tried too hard to see digital fiction as a subset of traditional, textual fiction, whereas they’re actually different subsets of the parent set, fiction? I think I can resolve this internally by seeing two different branches of storytelling; one which conforms to my preconceived expectations and another, which I can allow to be free to be what it will and enjoy it for what it is.