Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Successful Distance Learning

Yesterday I made a presentation to the senior management team at Payserv on some of my experiences on EDCMOOC which I started in late January this year, was told it would be of five weeks duration and 3-5 hours a week, then found it was more like 20-25 hours a week and now in more in recent days I have discovered that although the course is officially over and I have achieved a 'pass' from my peers, it looks more like the course may never end! 

Well, perhaps that is what real learning is all about?

During the course of my EDCMOOC one of the subjects that we discussed in one of the threads to which I contributed, was the question of what makes a MOOCer and more fundamentally, what makes a successful MOOCer.

In 2010 I attended a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) with an organisation in the UK where I was required to learn a myriad of administrative policies, procedures and tasks.  I was alone inasmuch as anyone else who had attended the course was now long past completing it and qualified.  My mentor was 6,000 miles away and not all that easy to talk to.  One of the early statements I read from the organisers about the requirements of distance learning read as follows: -

"Successful distance learning, particularly on-line, requires the learner to have certain characteristics, in order to fully engage in the learning process.  These are academic and emotional maturity; specific gaols; the ability to work alone; the capacity for self starting; self understanding and self motivation; persistence, patience; self confidence; read and writing ability; contacts who can help with content problems; and an academic support system (at home and at work)".

On releflecting on these attributes and considering comments of my EDCMOOC 'threaders' I have some new thoughts about this broad statement of requirements.

My co-threader suggested that all these attributes were the requirements of anyone learning to do anything anywhere with or without a teacher, on-line or in the classroom.  Her thoughts made me think some more on the list.  I think she was largely correct but one thing I have learned over the years is that a good present teacher who can encourage her present learners and provide emotional support can help some learners overcome some of the attributes in the list.  

But distance learning, particularly on-line requires most definitely the following:   Specific goals; the ability to work alone; the capacity for self-starting, contacts who can help with content problems (co-threaders in our case); family support (my wife wondered if I was married to the Internet but refrained from mentioning it until much later).

Most importantly, on-line learners need to be persistent and patient.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

My first MOOC is over!

It’s time to reflect on the last five weeks of my EDCMOOC with the University of Edinburgh.  I set out at the beginning to learn what a MOOC is, how it worked, what it could do for me and for others as a medium for learning.  I thought at the outset that the course “E-Learning and the Digital Space” would be appropriate if only because of my work at Payserv managing an E-learning tool for the staff.  

I was further motivated to take this particular course because of a recent experience in Johannesburg last November where I attended an E-learning conference titled “Café Africa” and hosted by LRMG – The Learning Resource and Management Group.  I found Café Africa to be a ‘different’ experience from other conferences that I have attended – different in its use of technology, different in the manner in which it was presented, different in the manner in which delegates responded.  

The most mind-blowing presentation was titled the SHEconomy and the presenter, Natalie Maroun, a young South African director of LRMG, was passionate about her ideas.   The world is changing, she told us, largely due to the advances in technology and specifically, the advances in the social media – Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, WhatsApp and many other media tools.   It is also changing because of changes to people – people today are better educated than yesteryear and women in particular have been elevated from being the housewives and mothers of the 1950’s to the bread-winners,  socialites and leaders of the 21st century.  No longer are women dependent on a husband, no longer are women unable to choose whether to have children or not.   So they have moved and are moving ever faster into the boardrooms of commerce and industry worldwide.

With all this in mind I started on my MOOC.  We were provided with resources on a weekly basis and asked to view, listen and read.  Some were You-Tube or Vimeo presentations, others were review documents or blogs from the – mostly – western world.

To begin with I was gobsmacked.  Part of my problem was the slow download speeds of my internet connection at home.  I upgraded with my service provider after the first week to a faster download speed and greater volumes.

But the real problem was the deluge of information to which I was being subjected.  The resources were one thing but the Discussion Forums – the threads that were being generated by 42,000 students worldwide were another entirely.  At the beginning, I made a vain effort to read them all.  From an estimated 3-5 hours per week, my workload escalated to 25-30 hours a week.

By Week Two I was a sleepless wreck.   But then it all changed – and for the better.

I found a discussion forum for the ‘Over 60’s’ and I settled in to getting involved with the other participants.  There were in all, about 30 of us from all over the world – the majority Americans, Australians and Brits, but there were others from South America, China and Europe. 

In Week Three I was invited to join a ‘Voice-Thread’ and although this made a further dent in my time management, it was the best thing that happened to me on the MOOC.  I found myself in a discussion forum with a dozen others – mostly in the USA, one from Australia, a couple from Europe.  Never having experienced a Voice Thread this was technologically different, and to begin with challenging.  The conversations are asynchronous – that is, they are recorded, saved and stored and viewed at a later time.  I did experience some technical difficulties for a period where I could only record my comments on the keyboard of my laptop but I overcame that and got involved with voice.   The attitude of all the people on the Voice Thread was one of cooperation.   All my colleagues were open about their fears and their thoughts.  It was a very satisfying new experience of almost magical proportions.

One major worry for me at the outset was the fact that at the end of the MOOC I was expected to present an ‘artefact’ to my peers.  Certain rules were applied to their submission –

·         it will contain a mixture of two or more of: text, image, sound, video, links.
·         it will be easy to access and view online.
·         it will be stable enough to be assessed for at least two weeks.

And for the assessment criteria the requirements were: -

·         The artefact addresses one or more themes for the course
·         The artefact suggests that the author understands at least one key concept from the course
·         The artefact has something to say about digital education
·         The choice of media is appropriate for the message
·         The artefact stimulates a reaction in you, as its audience, e.g. emotion, thinking, action

I had no idea at all of how I was going to produce this artefact.   I had no experience of the various tools on the internet that we were advised were available – such things as Voicethread, Storify, Xtranormal, Pixton, Issuu, Storybird, Weebly, Animoto, Prezi, Wikispaces, TedEd, Google Sites. 

Not only did I lack experience of these tools, I’d never even heard of them!  The let out clause for me was ‘or any blog, web space or wiki site’

I had a look at Prezi, Storify and Issuu.  I registered on all three.  I played around a little.  I found Flickr.   I discovered how to move photographs from my mobile phone to my laptop and I posted some photographs on Flickr. I was in business!

In the meantime the learning progressed and being able to discuss ideas with my colleagues in the threads was a major motivational factor.

We attended two Google Hangouts with the teaching staff from Edinburgh.  While these were instructive they were not exactly ‘highlights’ in my MOOC experience.

By the time we got to the end of Week Three I had my artefact in draft and in our Over 60’s thread we were passing them around for review.  What a great way it was to learn more and to gain some confidence.

Posting the artefact to Edinburgh was, in the end, a simple process and then later reviewing the work of my peers was enjoyable but equally it was disappointing.  I was able to ‘pass’ one of my peers but not the other two who quite simply failed to meet the criteria laid down by Edinburgh.  I looked at two more artefacts and these were both very well presented.

Now at the end, I am just a little disappointed that it is all over.  Attending this EDCMOOC has been a most enjoyable, even exciting learning experience.  It is without doubt the most enjoyable learning experience of my life.  First because I have learned something new about humanity and the digital space, secondly because I have experienced an interaction between humanity (me and my colleagues on the threads) and the digital space.  I have discovered – although I probably knew it before but now it has been solidified in my mind and my being – that successful learning is about ‘fun’ and human interaction.   Take one of those away and there isn’t much chance of success.  Take them both away and there is no chance!

As for the MOOC.  Will I recommend it to others?  You bet I will.  Some constraints of course; the MOOC must be relevant to the learner – relevant to his or her work, or if not to work then to a lifetime goal; the learner must be able to devote the time – an estimated 3-5 hours a week is just not a correct estimate.  I could probably have managed on 3-5 hours a week without the human interaction.  But the human interaction is, as I have said before, essential.   I am willing to bet my boots that the two artefacts that I found inadequate were presented by people who did not interact.

Learning has undergone a revolution.  There are clearly hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people who are going to learn through the MOOC experience in the coming months and years.  Learning will never be the same again.  Educationalists are clearly endorsing the medium of the MOOC.  Those that don’t will cease to exist.  Not right now but eventually.