How to nurture a community of online learners

Community.....
Community…..” flickr photo by Kamaljith shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I’ve been involved in open learning for several years now. It started almost by accident, when some guy called Dave ran a crazy learning experience that we called rhizo14, carried on serendipitously into a sister experience called CLMOOC, and gradually became a part of my daily ritual as I started participating in Daily Creates. Much of what happens in these open, online experiences can appear to be random and unstructured, but beneath and behind them is a set of core principles and values and a tried and tested design. Those can be broadly summed up as belonging to an educational framework called connected learning. That’s helped me to learn some tricks to help all of us (staff and students) to teach and learn online. They’re at the end of this post, for those wanting to skip straight to the punchline.

Connected learning is a work in progress. It begins from an (intuitively plausible, I think) set of beliefs in the value of learning that is interest-driven, peer-supported and academically relevant, and harnesses the power of social media in order to make these types of learning better integrated into learners’ lives while attempting to make it accessible to anyone who wants to participate (equity is a core value). As such, it is platform and technology agnostic, although the values of open education are central to what practitioners do.

At the heart of connected learning is the thought that we live, nowadays, in a participatory culture. Sometimes people describe this as “Web 2.0”, but participatory culture is actually a richer concept than that. Henry Jenkins contrasts the concept of “interactivity”, which he describes as a relationship between a customer and a software company and a property of some social media platforms, and “participation” which is a relationship between people (which can be facilitated by use of social media). This means that we can’t take student engagement for granted, we have to explicitly design it into our courses. For those familiar with the terminology, I might use this distinction to explain the differences between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. I say this to note a difference, and not to imply that cMOOCs are always superior – knowledge acquisition and participation in learning are not, imo, contradictory concepts – each has its place. Anna Sfard makes this point better than I could.

To an outsider, learning in the open can look unstructured and random, and those new to this type of learning and teaching can feel overwhelmed, out of their depth, unsure of their own abilities, frustrated, scared or even angry. This goes for both learners (often called participants) and educators (often called facilitators). This is why it is so important to design these experiences carefully, and to think carefully about the types of support that can be provided. I think, in the interesting times that lie ahead of us, we are all going to need all the support we can get – both to keep ourselves going, and to help our learners. Teaching and learning online can be an isolated experience, as those of us who do it know only too well.

So how can all of this help us now? First of all I should stress that I’m not suggesting that everybody immediately abandons whatever they are doing and redesign their courses so that they are connected learning experiences – I’m not trying to make more work for anyone. What I am going to tell you about is some tried and tested strategies that have helped the community that I am a part of to emerge and continue. I’m not pretending to have invented any of these strategies either – just to have used or experienced them for myself.

  • Remember that your learners will be in many different time zones, some of which will have better connectivity than others. People who can’t participate are likely to feel very left out and uncared for. Think about asynchronous activities as well as synchronous ones.
  • Some learners will have state of the art technology, others … won’t. Think about designing activities/resources that can load on different devices.
  • Realise that there is no such thing as a digital native: some (staff and students) will find it easy to adapt to this new way of teaching and learning others … won’t. We can’t predict who will and won’t adapt. Think about how to support staff and students who just can’t work out how to log in/submit/engage.
  • Don’t rely on one platform or one mode of delivery. Systems could be overloaded, or not available for a particular device, or not available in a geographical area (YouTube content, for example, can be restricted by geographical area). Yes, this could mean duplicating important content/messages in order to ensure that everyone who needs can access them.
  • Don’t force anyone to use a particular platform (other than official, institutionally supported ones). Your students might well have ethical objections to using a particular one. Respect those. Never require anyone to sign up to a (non-institutionally supported/“official”) platform in order to participate. Data rights are human rights.
  • Tap into the altruism of others. Nurture a community that helps each other (both staff and students). Model this yourself, watch for others doing it and publicly thank them. Think about the types of roles that might be needed to build a learning community: as well as you (the teacher), you might look for particularly active and/or knowledgeable students to become mentors.
  • Structure informal activities that people can engage in if they want. These don’t have to take a lot of time to design – you might ask students to share something unique about where they are living, to tell others about their hobbies, pets, or family. You could ask them to do this by sharing a small image, a link to a website, or a forum post. These help participants to feel that they belong and can build a sense of community over time.

And, finally, reach out to others around you. Use your networks and don’t be afraid of saying that you are finding something hard. My initial experiences of all of this was a baptism of fire. Those who watch me nowadays often think that I always find it easy to participate, and have always found it easy, but that’s not true. In fact, I nearly dropped out of an early connected learning experience (CLMOOC 2015) because I was feeling lost, confused and overwhelmed. What happened next was, I realise, due to the carefully designed support structure that was in place. I shouted out into the void and someone answered. The rest, as they say, is history.

Posted in #CLMOOC, #rhizo14, DailyCreate, Learning, MOOC, Online learning, PhD, Social Media, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Leap

Leap

A frog, to celebrate the leap year

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Rhizo Reminiscences

rhizo network made with gephi

Were were you six years ago? When I asked myself that question earlier this week I realised that I was participating in the first week of rhizo14

So much has happened since then – so much that I don’t know where to start. I tried to remember who I met for the first time then and put tagged some people in a tweet:

Kevin suggested that we all write something to mark the occasion:

So here’s an open invitation – to anyone who wants – let’s have a rhizo reunion. Let us know what you’ve done since rhizo14, or 15, or whenever it was that you first encountered this networked learning that we do. Tag it #rhizo, if you like, and share it with us.

Image is a Gephi graph of #rhizo14

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Recipes

Bubble and Squeak

My Granny taught me a lot about cooking. She’d read a recipe – say for pork chops with apple – and say that she thought she’d make it for tea, and maybe alter it a little bit, because she realised that she had some lamb chops and apricots that would make a good combination. Whatever she made was delicious – she was a great cook.

I thought about this today when I attended a seminar which was advertised as being about Team Based Learning (TBL). TBL is a very structured approach to active learning, and it has a fairly formulaic recipe. Some proponents say that it should be followed to the letter, others say that there can be some leeway in modifying it – but my experience today got me wondering: when does a learning design stop being a modified version of the original and start being something else altogether? The version I was told about today was an interesting type of active learning, but it was very removed from being TBL. It was not bad teaching and learning, in fact I think it was very good – but I don’t think the presenter had understood what the original design was all about.

So where do we draw the line? If I tell you that I am making you a Shepherd’s Pie, but actually I substitute the original filling with apple and the topping with meringue, is it still a type of modified Shepherd’s Pie? Surely not. How about if I keep the original filling and top it with meringue – is it now a not very palatable Shepherd’s Pie? Possibly.

To return to Granny’s cooking, of course in the example above she wouldn’t have told us that she was giving us pork chops with apple – she’d present the dish as her own, maybe as inspired by the original. And, importantly, my Granny understood cooking – she understood why the original elements worked together and why her substituted ones would also work together well. I think that’s the same for teaching and learning – before we can start swapping bits in and out of a successful design, we need to understand how and why the original design works.

Some people might say that TBL is poorly named, and that others can be excused for not understanding that it is a particular type of design. That might be so, but I don’t think that’s much of an excuse.

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Resolutions

It took me a long time to start doing the Daily Create. I wanted to participate, but I was not sure I should, or could. Although it’s an open community, I still felt that I’d be an interloper, rudely bursting into a private conversation (and I’ve heard others say this about similar situations, so I know that this is an issue for open educators, but I am going to side step this for today). And the people participating all seemed so proficient – they seemed to do it all so expertly and effortlessly that I was sure that my feeble efforts would not be worthy (again, there’s lots here to tease out that I will pass over for now). Still, I finally took the plunge on March 19th 2016, and now I have 1148 submissions under my belt. For the last couple of years I have made sure to submit something every single day. Sometimes it takes me a few minutes to submit my daily create, other days it takes a few hours, but every day I make sure that I do something – it’s now part of my everyday practice. Sometimes it’s a real struggle to find the time, and sometimes I feel that I am not putting in the effort that I should, but doing something every day helps me in ways I don’t always recall at the time.

So this is my resolution for 2020 – to keep on keeping on. To submit to the daily create every day, to continue with my doodling challenges, and to rejoice in playful learning.

Posted in #CLMOOC, DailyCreate, Doodles, DS106, MOOC, Online learning, Peer interaction, PhD | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Reindoodle

More doodling – a reindeer today. Again I searched Google images and scanned through to get an idea of the basic shapes I wanted to draw. Then I sketched, quickly, using a Tombow brush pen this time (lovely pen, I am enjoying drawing with this). I grabbed a red crayon and coloured in the noses and hats.

reindeer

Then, when the first piece of paper was full I grabbed a pad of plain paper and drew another reindeer, coloured it in with pencils and scanned both sheets to my PC. Uploaded the results to Flickr and here we are.

reindeer
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Poinsettia

poinsettia

One reason that I like participating in daily drawing challenges is that it encourages me to try to draw something new, rather than doodling the same shapes that have become familiar to me. So when I saw that it was a poinsettia for Thursday’s drawing I was a bit daunted, but luckily I had a few minutes before going into a workshop to do an image search. I searched for poinsettia outline and scrolled through the results to get a feel for the basic shapes. Then I grabbed some crayons and a notepad and headed off to the seminar room. As the prof spoke, I sketched some basic shapes in pencil without worrying too much what the end result was going to be – I wanted to get the shape of the petal/leaf right. Then, when I was confident drawing them freehand I got out my 0.5 micron pen (I usually have one of these in my bag) and drew the basic outline. Then I got out my crayons (I could sense at this point how envious the others at my table were that I had something to occupy my hands!) and coloured it in. The end result is not perfect – I’d meant to sketch some more leaf detail on the red petals, but the workshop was over.

Imagine how pleased I was to see this post by Sheri talking about how she’d taken inspiration from my drawing – this is connected learning at its best.

PS: tomorrow it’s a narwhal. Um, eek?

Posted in #CLMOOC, DailyCreate, Doodles, Learning, Online learning, Peer interaction | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Who owns a hashtag?

Got Hash Tag?

I’m doing a MOOC from Futurelearn at the moment with some friends: Social Media Analytics: Using Data to Understand Public Conversations It’s interesting, I am getting to use some familiar software (TAGS) and some new stuff (Tableau), and it’s good to think through all of this with others. One of the topics for this week is the concept of public spaces – how a hashtag can create them. And, as a result of that I’d started thinking about public and private spaces, and conversations I’d had in the past about how, though Twitter is public, sometimes one does not like to join in a conversation one sees as it’s not clear whether those speaking would welcome the intervention, or see it as an intrusion. (For the record, if I am tweeting to some people and others want to chip in, that’s great – that’s one of the reasons I’ll be tweeting and not using email, Facebook, or any of the other more “private” spaces I have.)

But, as I say, the MOOC has got me thinking – and one of the things it’s got thinking about is this: who owns a hashtag? This post has been brewing for a couple of days now – and at the back of my mind was the idea that I’d introduce it by telling a funny story, then something happened that gave me pause. Well, I’ll tell you both stories …

Ages ago, probably when something like a rhizo or a pop up CLMOOC was happening, maybe this post was inspired by it, some of us happened upon a hashtag. You know how it is – you’re chatting, you hashtag your tweet with #SomethingYouThinkAmusingOrApt and think no more about it. Maybe your friends also use the hashtag. Tweets and Tweeps can do that. But not this time. Oh, no. This time was different. As we carried on conversing (without the #AmusingOrApt hashtag), a very angry person replied to us all. Apparently we were USING HER HASHTAG. Hers, just hers. Her hashtag for her personal use. She had bagsied it and that meant that nobody else could use it. NEVER. NOT EVER. Well, as I recall, we ignored her and left her to her solitary tweeting (honestly – she was tweeting onto a void using the hashtag – nobody was replying to her or “liking” her tweets), but it made me think: can somebody really own a hashtag? Can one person, or a group of people, dictate to others how they can and can’t use it? Surely not – that’s just not how Twitter works. But then this happened …

I noticed a Tweet this morning that interested me. It was hashtagged #LTHEChat, and hence came up in one of my columns in TweetDeck. It was about learning and teaching in HE, the person tweeting was an #LTHEChat “regular” as were the others in the conversation. It seemed relevant. I replied, also with the hashtag. That’s how Twitter works. But, then, I got a notification of a reply to us and saw this:

Hmmm. Well, I am not sure. Is that how it works? Do the volunteers behind the “official” Twitter account get to be hashtag monitors? Maybe. The chat happens on Wednesday evenings from 8-9pm, and I can see that part of a facilitator’s role might be to keep conversations roughly on track. Maybe. But does that mean that nobody can use the hashtag for other conversations, at other times? Surely not. So if we, as a community (I think that #LTHEChat is a community now, by the way), want to use the hashtag outwith the regular chat times, should we be policed? Of course, in a sense, nobody can STOP me using any hashtag I want, but if we’re talking about social niceties (which I think I am), then what sort of conventions would we like to see in place, or follow ourselves?

I don’t have hard and fast answers to this. I do think it’s worth talking about. So I am going to publish this now and tweet it. And I am going to hashtag it #LTHEChat. You can tell me if you think I am out of order for doing this.

Got Hash Tag?” flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Posted in Learning, MOOC, Online learning, PhD, Rhizomes, Social Media | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Chutney

Saturday morning chutney making – blogging this so I have the recipe. I used this one, with a mixture of sultanas and raisins, yellow instead of red pepper, fewer tomatoes than stated (we only had 660g, some were green tomatoes from the garden) so more apple and onion to make up the weight. This made 10 8oz jars.

Chutney ingredients
Boiling chutney
Jars of chutney
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Past me

Thank You

Sitting, pen in hand, with blank paper in front of me, I chastise my past self.
I shout at her for being lazy, for not writing more, so that I would need to write less.
But my past self was not ready to write: she didn’t know what I know now.
Her thoughts had not crystallised, she had not read what I had read.
I need to stop blaming past-me for what she did not do
And start thanking her for what she did.

Thank You” flickr photo by Orin Zebest shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Posted in #CLMOOC, PhD, Researcher Journal, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments