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#etmooc: In the beginning … January 19, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD.
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Intrigued by the potential and keen to explore a cMOOC, I signed up for #etmooc quite early. I undertook the preparatory steps in advance of the first week, ensuring my blog could be hooked in to the network, joining the etmooc Google community, posting a brief into., linking to the shared calendar … then at this point it became clear that the first week wasn’t going to go too smoothly. I couldn’t join the first scheduled orientation webinar since I was in school that evening, nor indeed the second – a meeting after work meant that I would be on the journey home at the time. Even the ‘repeats’ weren’t really practical on this occasion, since a midnight (for us) until 1.00 am session might have an adverse effect on an already demanding week. Darn it!

Nevertheless since the first two sessions were to explore how Twitter and blogging could be central to one’s involvement in #etmooc, and given that I’m familiar with both, I hope the impact on the remainder of the ‘course’ won’t be too harmful. What it did mean however is that I missed the opportunity for forging some of the initial links that are so important in establishing the necessary relationships vital when learning with others who may be far apart and with whom you might never had contact before. I find I get a much faster(?) (better?) impression of what someone thinks when they’re reacting in the backchannels to the stimuli during the webinar, rather than reading a bio … and with over a thousand (?) participants, even a sampling process will take some time. So I’m looking forward to next week’s sessions with renewed enthusiasm, though in the meantime will be playing catchup to some extent – reading & commenting on the etmooc Google Community streams, checking some of the intros posted, perhaps catching the archived Blackboard Collaborate sessions.

Although a little late in the week, here’s my offering for the Orientation week activity (and a link should it fail to display):


I settled on Empressr as the tool of choice – it offered the functionality I wanted to deploy and as always, I chose a tool with which I’m not familiar so that I could learn more about it whilst undertaking an authentic exercise. It has that familiar feel of other slide show-style presentation tools but being online, allows for easy retrieval of other online resources like videos and imagery from common online libraries. Since the product of your labours is online, it also means that distributing it is easy too. Allowing the upload of audio which can either play across the whole presentation (which I mistakenly chose!) or recording directly over each slide means standalone presentations can be much more informative and richer.

Wonder what I’ll be using next week …?

MOOCs aren’t at all bad … or is that damning with faint praise? June 3, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Resources.
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computer science

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo by derrickting: http://flickr.com/photos/derrickding/323213337/

The six weeks are up and I’ve successfully reached the end of CS101 on Coursera, my first MOOC. Although I’m not entirely sure how many students were enrolled on the course, there was clearly a good international spread, with the age spectrum well represented too. (If their submissions were to be believed, the youngest was 11 and the oldest 82)

Before I reflect on how things worked out, it might be wise to return to my motivations for embarking on this course of study. I was hoping to explore:

  • an example of the new learning environments known as MOOCs
  • my attitude to learning through this medium
  • introductory computer science.

I guess on all three fronts I succeeded, however that’s not to say the experience was entirely fulfilling. I certainly had a good look around the Coursera environment which offered a clear, well-structured, robust platform with course materials laid out and accessible intuitively ( at least for someone who is familiar with online learning environments). Providing the learning materials as short (10-20min) videos in lecture-style format, supported by course notes was perfectly acceptable, especially as the videos could be downloaded for offline viewing. I often find streaming an unsatisfying experience due to inevitable buffering, but here I could download the videos and watch them from the comfort of the sofa on the larger screen of my TV … and with a cuppa close to hand. The ‘test area’ coding environment for those parts of the course was a sensible move, but I didn’t find the need to use it much (more later).The assessment exercises were largely trivial, given the need to have them auto-marked; it wouldn’t have been difficult to include a few more multi-choice questions with an increasing level of demand perhaps. But then again, the assessments aren’t really there to differentiate one learner from another, nor to provide some element of summative grade; they’re just a mechanism by which the learner can check his/her understanding … though perhaps they didn’t really do that too well either.

To address the potentially missing social, interactive aspects of studying online, a forum environment was provided and whilst some participants were clearly enthusiastic contributors, I found the majority of threads either a little too trivial or far too long and wandering. Perhaps this was simply because the course contents didn’t offer sufficient demand that I had issues I needed to resolve through discussion with others or maybe in just a six week course I just didn’t feel the imperative to fully commit and begin to forge relationships.

I suspect that choosing computer science was my main mistake, though for the best intentions. With the current debate surrounding its reinvigoration in the UK school curriculum, it seemed like an appropriate topic to visit. Unfortunately an introductory course aimed at people with no prior experience of CS inevitably meant that there was insufficient challenge for me. Which is not to say I came away having learned nothing; quite the contrary in fact. The problem was more that I never needed to step away from the content to process it further or more deeply, either because it didn’t challenge me or I felt no imperative to push myself to take things further. To be fair I couldn’t really expect any more than that from a six week introductory course. The consequence however was that I never became fully immersed in the course, whether due to my attitude to the subject matter, course contents or the open nature (i.e. no commitment either personally or financially).

In the end I suspect my feelings were far less skeptical than Joshua Kim’s and at a similar (though not for the same reasons) level to those of Audrey Waters. Would I do another? Absolutely! In fact in order to evaluate MOOCs more rigorously, I need to do another; one in which I move beyond my comfort zone and into an area that fully challenges me. Are MOOCs suitable for everyone? Of course not! But that’s not because the technological environment might not suit all (which is indeed true), but that you have to have a determined and committed approach to your learning, recognising that the locus of that learning must come from within. Would I recommend it to someone else! Probably. There’s certainly nothing inherently weak in the principle or the practise, but I would advise them that progress and success will depend largely on their predisposition. Let’s keep a sense of perspective – these are free (arguably!), well-structured, well-resourced courses which provide learning opportunities for anyone with an Internet connection. They have to be worth a shot surely?

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.

“I wanna tell you a story” February 19, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, Teaching Idea, Tools.
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I hope those (more mature?) UK residents for whom the title quote has meaning will forgive the reference to a long-lived and for many, well-loved English variety entertainer, Max Bygraves. But his catchphrase neatly encapsulated what entertainers need to do – to tell stories. Or at least to adopt the role of storyteller. Storytellers hold your attention, stir your imagination, compel you to want to hear (read/see/experience) more, invoke an emotional response … make you care. Storytelling can be for entertainment and pleasure, but also help understanding, solicit co-operation or build coalition … or even sell a product or service. As Joe Sabia outlined, the influence of digital (and other) media on storytelling may not have changed the essential elements of storytelling, but I’d suggest they have enabled the following:

  • Reach – access to a much wider audience through the Internet and the social networks which magnify.
  • Richness – diversity and profusion of media through which stories can be expressed.
  • Revealing – allowing a wider range of creators, for whom traditional storytelling may have been less accessible, to appreciate that they have something to offer and the media through which it might be delivered.
  • Recycling – where content created by others can be reused to tell the same story in a different way, or weave an entirely different narrative, or be mashed together from different sources.
  • Requesting – the audience need no longer be passive receptors and can be invited in to contribute to, or influence the direction of the story

As teachers, perhaps we need to scrutinise more carefully the role of storyteller and how might exploit the techniques and processes of telling a story so that the experiences to which we expose our students become more compelling.

The ‘story’ I chose to tell for this #etmooc assignment was inspired by a single image a colleague showed me just last week. I wondered whether it could form the subject of a story, but rather than put it up front and centre, I chose to approach it obliquely. Other storytelling techniques such as 5-card Flickr put imagery front and centre in order to stimulate the imagination. I elected to use simple words to conjure images which would hopefully lead the reader in a direction such that the final reveal was a complete surprise. Progressively revealing more and more of the image hopefully served to stimulate the imagination further.

Master storyteller? Well not yet. With such little text, each phrase, each clause, each word needs to be chosen with care and precision. I could have done with a little more time, but you can only tinker so much and eventually you have to ‘ship.’ I think maybe the image reveal could have been done a little better and though I considered making it visible on every frame, thought it might detract from the story and the reader’s need to conjure their own image as they absorbed the words – doing that whilst pondering the imagery would have been too much I felt. One final thing, boy isn’t finding a piece of appropriate CC music for the backing track time consuming?! Wasn’t entirely satisfied with the final choice, but the days are only so long.

Progressively revealing an image is a useful technique on large screen displays, perhaps using IWBs to tease out the storytelling in our younger students. Rather than show a whole image at once, use the IWB spotlight or eraser tools to reveal just a small section and ask students to first describe what they see, then as different scenes are shown, how or if they might be related. It’s surely the process of filling in the background for oneself that stimulates imaginative thinking?

Rhizomatic Learning – too cool for school? February 10, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, research.
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It doesn’t usually take me this long to get down to writing a post, but reflecting on the Rhizomatic Learning (RL) session with Dave Cormier has had me stumped … as indeed it did Dave. It’s not that it’s a particularly difficult idea, making as it does a metaphorical link with the way certain plants propagate as part of their growth process.

reed rhizomes

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Science and Plants for Schools: http://flickr.com/photos/71183136@N08/7095841451/

The main aspects include how easily and rapidly rhizomes spread, how haphazard growth can be via multiple paths (responding as they do to local environment) and the degree of resilience they exhibit (when rhizomes are severed, the parent plant continues to grow and the severed sections can form new plants). These factors are also found in certain learning situations, MOOCs in particular, but community-centred situations in general, which means RL can provide a model for describing learning under these circumstances. I can also see how learning rhizomatically helps deal with complex situations and help prepare learners for uncertain futures. Having telegraphed its arrival I’m going to jump in with the ‘BUT’ (and this is I guess why it’s taken me so long to write this post), there are aspects of RL with which I feel less comfortable. These fall into three camps: the first being how far the rhizome metaphor holds up in describing learning ecosystems, the second in how applicable it is to my continued experience in pre-higher education and the third is that RL might just be a bit of a cop out.

Rhizomatic individuality

When rhizomes grow, though they do respond to their environment, the degree to which they interact with it is questionable I’d suggest. There’s no interlinking, no connecting, no collaboration, co-operation or symbiosis as there might be in a learning community. Indeed this can be taken even further and rhizomatic growth (or learning) can have destructive effects as Kaska discussed here. I also wonder too about the true resilience of rhizomes; clearly they are incredibly persistent within their own niche, but what is their fate if transplanted to a completely new environment? And I guess that takes me to my second point …

Too cool for school?

Primary and secondary education (K-12) is dominated by formal learning and whilst a little non-formal might sneak in the back door, there is neither room for, nor acceptance of informal learning. Organisational structures, timetables, schedules and calendars, externally mandated curricula, school buildings, cultural inertia, educational dogma all serve to exclude informal learning. I’d argue its an environment entirely hostile to rhizomatic learning. Or to flip it around, the needs of the learners might not be best served by applying the principles of RL; they are after all dealing with neither complex nor chaotic circumstances, their curriculum is not ‘the community’ and though we might wish to ‘make them responsible for their own learning,’ whilst teachers and schools exist to take the fall, that’s going to be an incredibly hard sell to society. In all fairness, Dave C is not claiming that RL applies in all circumstances and maybe I simply have to accept that unlike behaviourism , cognitivism or constructivism, I’ll struggle to find a place for RL in school. Yet perhaps this is the source of the discomfort and disconnect I feel; the tension that I know exists where the immediate future of our learners is pre-ordained and clearly laid out, yet the future beyond their school is far from certain and their learning needs might be better served by a more rhizomatic approach.

Copping out?

Having an ‘open syllabus’ where the ‘curriculum is the community’ and where learners determine their learning paths and success criteria, are all highly laudable aims, but I wonder to what extent they shift the responsibility away from the ‘course’ leader, thereby making their job a whole lot easier. No syllabus, no learning outcomes, no testing. It sure makes it a whole lot harder to be called to account by your line manager/employer if the learning experiences of your learners are less tangible. Or maybe it’s actiually the opposite and proponents of RL have a much tougher job justifying their existence when the evidence of their learners’ progress doesn’t conform to conventional structures (strictures?)?

Perhaps then I’m looking in the wrong place for instances and applications of RL? I simply need to content myself with the fact that my own learning is often rhizomatic. It’s often chaotic, dealing as it does with complex issues in preparation for unclear futures. I determine my learning pathways, explore a plethora of different avenues and decide for myself when journeys are complete. My curriculum is indeed my community and maybe that’s enough … for now.