15 July 2012

Setup for a small online course, some lessons learnt

This spring, I taught an online course for some 10 doctoral students, most in Switzerland, some as far away as Mozambique. The topic was technologies for informal learning, and it was part of a larger series, called Cross-FIELD (cross-fertilization between formal and informal Learning through Digital technologies) and set up by three  universities in Switzerland. But that is not what I want to write about. The format of the course is, though. When asked to do this, the request was to give an online seminar on informal learning, but I thought it would be a little more exciting if I were to make things more social, more multi-way interactive than is customary in a seminar. After all, when learning about informal learning it would be nice to experience it to some extent as well. I here want to share some thoughts about how effective this format has been in my opinion.

How as the course set up? 

First and foremost, I wanted to make sure the students would not just consume, but also produce something. Being doctors of philosophy in the making, I felt writing a short (1500 words) essay would be most appropriate as a means to close off the course. The choice of a subject was only constrained in two ways: a) informal learning had someone to feature in it, b) they could either write a conceptual paper or write a persona and discuss what informal learning meant for that fictitious person. This way, I could also ensure the experience would be maximally useful for their doctoral work. Since the group was small, I could afford to read the essays and provide feedback to them. And, of course, I hoped to also learn something myself along the way.

Second, I wanted them to have discussions, with me and among the group members. Informal learning being a concept with mostly negative definitions (i.e. anything that is not formal learning) - which according to all the books on proper definition is to be avoided, and concept formation being one of the hallmarks of scientific progress, I felt budding academics needed to engage in discussions about the topic. This way they could get a feel for how to discuss conceptual matters and, hopefully, both learn how complex the question is and how you go about contributing to such a conceptual discussion. So, I ended up having three online seminars in the course as a whole, at weekly intervals. The first seminar was devoted to the pedagogical challenges of informal learning. As a preparation, I gave them some stuff to read: a chapter from a planned book as well as a blog post of mine. The second online seminar was set up similarly (including a new blog post) and covered the technological challenges of informal learning.  In the third and final one the students had to discuss the topic that they wanted to write about, so their peers could comment on their plans. To help them prepare, I wrote a blog post with some general recommendations, for instance about design as a research method. After that third session I wrote a final blog post with some suggestions on how to profit from your peers during the writing process.

Being an online course, the events were structured via my blog posts. Each one had some housekeeping, there also was a welcome post in the very beginning which headed of the course. E-mail was used throughout, I even set up Google group to make it easier to send out alerts to everyone (url for the Flasmeeting for instance). However, I tried to limit the use of email to inevitable personal messages only ('can't make it to the next semiar'). All online seminars lasted  60 - 90 minutes. I used Flashmeeting as a technical infrastructure. For who doesn't know this, it is similar to Adobe Connect; people take turns to speak, the routing is done by a moderator, the conversation can be recorded, you can also exchange files and use chat as a back channel. I set up a private group in Mendeley, in which I shared the papers I wanted them to read and papers I recommened them to read. I also pointed them to a public group in Mendeley on networked learning, which I moderate and where they could find more general background literature. I urged students to Twitter about their experiences during the four weeks that the course lasted and in particular in the final writing week, using a specific hashtag. And, finally, I suggested they use Google docs, for their writing, so they could read each others' works in progress. I toyed with the idea of also giving my comments on the Google doc version of their papers, but ultimately decided against that as my comments would then be public. The students deserved to receive these in private, which would also allow me to be more  frank in my commenting.

Did it work?

Some things did work, others didn't. Going over the technologies I used (marked in italics in the previous paragraph), technically everything worked with the exception of Flashmeeting on one occasion; but this was entirely due to a scheduling mistake of mine. The blog posts and emails served their communicative functions, although I would have like some more comments on the posts. The same goes for the seminars. They worked but I would have liked them to be a little more interactive. The Mendeley groups were used, Twitter was hardly used. Some did use Google docs for their writing, others did not.

So, were the students better equipped sensibly to discuss informal learning? I don't know about the 'better', having no comparison really. But some said so and the quality of their papers was generally speaking good. Allowing them to either conduct a conceptual discussion or write a persona, was a good decision in retrospect as it accommodated the more theoretically and more practically inclined students. This no doubt contributed to the quality of the papers and, of course, allowed them to profit from the seminar in a way that suited their individual PhD projects best (a key tenet of informal learning, make it relevant for yourself).

Did I succeed in making things interactive? Not to the extent that I would have liked to. The reason for this is likely to be in part the unfamiliarity of some with the technologies I exposed them to, in part the lack of a structure that forced them to use these. My idea was that the tools I exposed them to are the tools of informal learning; so using them in the course would give the students first-hand experience of their use. As I said, I was only partly successful in this. I don't think using other tools (say, Google hangouts for Flashmeeting) would have made much of a difference. Possibly, if I had used additional tools, such as Scoop.it to curate their own informal learning topic, more interactions would have occurred. Following each others' topic with it is easy and has an immediate pay-of in the form of rescoops. ( A confession, while the course was running, the thought came up to use Scoop.it, but I had little experience with it myself, so I decided to go and immediately curate a topic on Networked Learning myself).

In conclusion, I am reasonably satisfied. But I remain in doubt whether, on a next occasion, to further structure the course and make more specific demands on the students (the usual teacher's response) or to look for a better, more inviting set of tools (the proper way of non-formal learning). Although, as a researcher of informal learning in social networks, I really should have no doubt.