A The characterisitics of an online learning community and the implications for learning and teaching online
To reflect on what I have learnt from this Facilitating eLearning Communities course, I need to go back to why I did the course - I wanted to find out about online learning communities because we were developing fully online beginners courses in Japanese and Chinese for the first time. The other members of the team were concentrating on the technical aspects of developing language learning activities, structuring the course, texts and so forth. My role was to look into communities of learning. I came in with an understanding of learning styles, learner needs and preferences, the role of reflection, self-assessment, self-motivation, and effective learning strategies as a result of the research I have been doing on learner autonomy, CALL and second language learning. I had some experience of integrating ICT for blended learning, into face to face classes, for example an e-portfolio, and wikis and blogs on Blackboard. I had some knowledge of communities of practice from what I had read, but no personal experience of how to facilitate and maintain online communities.
Possible communities of learning on the new online language courses being developed: I knew we could have at least three communities, each with a common interest in learning a language but also with their distinct needs or interests:
- school teachers needing to learn a language in response to the inclusion of languages as a learning area in the New Curriculum 2007. These teachers would most likely be intermediate school teachers, but there could also be primary and secondary teachers. Their distinct needs or interests could include how to integrate ICT and intercultural competence into their learning, teaching and assessment activities.
- business people. Their distinct needs would probably be business etiquette and culture.
- our own students or students from other institutions. Their distinct needs would be varied but could well reflect their majors.
There are a number of definitions of communities of practice/communities of learning, such as the one provided by Etienne Wagner:
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.This captures the essence of 'online communities' that I have come to understand gradually during this course from my own personal experience as a student interacting with other participants, Bronwyn and Leigh as facilitators, and the input from the various experts who delivered the 10 minute lectures. It is a learning environment in which learning can range from social interchange (exchange of knowledge), to social constructivism involving negotiation of meaning resulting in new knowledge construction (Kanuka and Anderson, 1998). I believe the success of these forms of social interaction is dependent on how effectively a range of tools are integrated into the course, and how various characteristics of online communities and issues - such as learners' prior knowledge and technological competence - are handled and resolved by skillfull facilitating.
Using the 10 minute lectures as a framework, these are some of the key characteristics/issues that have struck me as having major implications for learning and teaching online:
The time issue for students to become comfortable in the environment. Identity and ownership are essential factors in this process (James Farmer: Identity and Ownership Online). Farmer talked about the importance of social presence defined as 'the ability to project self as a real person over time', and how blogs and social technologies help get over issues of ownership and identity. The key to this is a learner-centred environment, that allows expression and relevance to the individual. The other important factor Farmer advocated is that the teacher should interact, comment and participate as an individual, rather than just be the person who grades.
The importance of preparing the learning space. As teachers we cannot 'create' the community, nor know what motivates students. However, just as in the face to face classroom, we can endeavour to create the optimum learning environment to enable students to maintain motivation. In relation to this Konrad Glogowski (Classrooms as Third Places) talked about preparing an online space for learning before the formal learning takes place. In addition to allowing students to write something that is personally meaningful before formal learning takes place to enable students to develop their online identity, Glogowski talked about making the community and activities very visible, and not just a collection of for example, blogs. Access and linkages should be simple and straightforward. I had problems with navigation in the early stages of this course: joining late, I found that interaction between participants was already taking place on the discussion board and email forum, and blogs were being introduced. Information and materials relating to the course were available on the course blog and also on Blackboard. What seems obvious to me now, was not then when I was a 'newbie'. The feeling of being overwhelmed and unsure of where to find things spurred me into action to make changes to the online environment I had created for my own students.
What I learnt about social identity and ownership also explained why an e-portfolio I had been trialling was not as successful as I had hoped it would be. It was far too teacher-centred and inflexible and did not allow students to create their own identity. Students were also isolated in the e-portfolio as it was only accessible to the individual and the teacher, so there was no social interaction, and no opportunity to build or feel part of a community. I intend to use blogs this year for first year students to introduce themselves to each other, and write something personally relevant before the formal learning begins, and at the same time, to enable them to get used to the online environment. These blogs will be set up in Blackboard so the students do not have to worry about the technical details of setting blogs up for themselves.
The distinctiveness of social interaction and networking possible within online communities. Sheryl Nussbaum-beach (The art of building virtual learning communities) described virtual communities as the basis of educational reform that will impact on how we deliver our curriculum. They will ensure collaboration globally, transforming our classrooms by taking them out of their isolation, and the role of teachers will need to change to that of partnerships with their students. Learning will not be top down but we will connect with others across the globe, and individuals will be engaged by influencing each other by a learning process eg through blogs. There will be lots of discussion and interaction, and relationships will form based on trust. Roles will change, with an ebb and flow depending on what is going on and how this engages the individual - lurkers are a consequence of this process. One could also add individual circumstances of participants into the formula.
Relating what Sheryl said to my own experience on the course: being able to learn in this environment, especially having 10 minute lectures from the various speakers, is really extending the community beyond the classroom, and is a clear example of the benefits of the environment. I feel that it is also important that participants in an online course are made aware of the characteristics of online learning, such as the ebb and flow of roles and interaction, and that when they are not quite as active, they can identify the reasons why this is happening, rather than worry that it is a reflection of their lack of ability.
Increasing presence and reliance of technology. I agree with Sheryl's comment that the use of the technologies also reinforces the digital divide - between those who know how to use the technology and those who don't. This has implications for learning and teaching: it is already becoming apparent amongst language teachers. My belief is that language teachers need to keep pace with the changing profile and expectations of our students, the increasing presence of technology, and the educational goals of life-long learning, as evidenced in the Executive Summary of the 'e-Learner profiles: diversity in learning' report by Jeffrey et al (n.d.).
The implications of increasing use of technologies whether in blended learning or fully online learning means that through networking, students now have access to the same resources, tools and experts as their teachers, and that learning is no longer passive (George Siemens: Curatorial Teaching). The danger is that there will be an increasing digital divide between students who will engage with the new technology and those who do not, and that this will be a challenge for teachers. However, Siemens pointed out that we have always had to deal with students who have not wanted to take part in some activities for examples group work or presentations and those who will.
The use I am making of Siemens' website, newsletter and links within it, and incorporating principles underpinning his connectivist approach into the other approaches I use (eg experiential learning), is one example of the benefits of the networking of the online community.
The role of peer support and collaborative learning. This was illustrated by Nancy White in the context of social networks like del.icio.us, peer assist and blogging. All these involve 'looking over the shoulders' of others and benefits the person looking and the person who is being looked at. As a member of this Facilitating eLearning Communities course, I have benefited from reading the blogs of other participants, feedback in my own blog, and the help I have received including from people outside the course (for example in Second Life) who also participate in this community.
Issues relating to open or closed access to participants' material. This 'looking over the shoulders of others' as outlined by Nancy White, has benefits, but having open access or closed access is a consideration in online learning, as can be seen from the summary of the discussion in Yvonne's facilitation exercise on the 'Pros and Cons of Blogging for Projects'.
These issues include:
- whether students are comfortable with others reading and commenting on their work;
- the need for other students to provide constructive criticism and questioning, rather than just affirmations (Derek Chirnside: Community in Courses).
- the need to have structure and scaffolding otherwise reflection is unlikely to develop beyond description and learning remains shallow.
In the case of open versus closed, this is something I will be looking at in my own courses. I am considering a mixture: some activities open and some closed; and some open at fixed times. However there is value to being open, as I experienced myself when Nancy White made a comment in my blog: it certainly had an impact on my confidence and on feeling part of a community.
B Evaluate online communiation tools in given learning contexts eg in your own discipline.
The increased awareness of the potential of online communication tools for language learning is summarised in this You Tube video by Graham Stanley:
Language Learning and Web 2.0 Technologies
The new technologies have the potential to enhance language learning far beyond what could have been imagined only a few years ago, and now play a major role in ensuring relevance. I find I can now just focus on learning and teaching activities I would like without worrying so much about whether they can be achieved in terms of technology because this time next year it is likely to be possible. The pace at which technology is developing means we can do things now that we could not do this time last year. Tools such as podcasts and Wimba Voice Tools for example have made teaching oral skills effectively online a reality, not to mention the potential of Second Life. The integration of ICT into language teaching is very much an aim at the school level, and the knowledge and skills are reflected in the key competencies that are being introduced in all sectors. One of the implications of this activity is the need to have a shift in paradigm in learning, teaching and assessment, away from the traditional approaches to one that is more holistic and experiential (Corder & Moffat, 2005) and includes the principles of connectivism (Siemens, 2004). In fact Siemens has had quite an influence on my pedagogical approach and this lecture is a good summary of what I have learnt, thought and moved towards in my own teaching. My experience of using the various tools in this course has reinforced my own research findings that the tools alone do not guarantee learning; the important factor is how they can be used to enhance learning and teaching (as outlined by Siemens (+slideshow) . It is essential to have a sound pedagogical framework (Levy, 2007) .
The following is a reflection on some of the tools that have the most relevance for me at the moment:
What I have learnt about the tools: the course participants have been exposed to a range of online tools and I like the way Yvonne has divided them up into synchronous, asynchronous and tools. Probably the ones that have had most relevance for my own teaching have been email forums, wikis, blogs, Skype, and Second Life as a VLE. I now use del.icio.us and RSS feeds to manage my own learning and can see a practical learning and teaching function for them. Other social networking tools I have not become very familiar with include FaceBook and Myspace, the former I did not like on the same grounds as Siemens, ie 'privacy sacrifice' not acceptable. As a tool the concept is good but not the things that go with it. I am not very interested in pursuing Elluminate for my own teaching at the moment as I have access to the KAREN network, but I have enjoyed using it as a student on this course probably because of the interaction that took place.
Blogs: I had contributed to a blog the year before last to prepare for a joint presentation at conference in Japan. One of the other presenters was living in Mexico and the other in Japan. We actually moved to a wiki as it was much more suitable for our needs for editing. It has been a very useful experience having to use a blog as a student on this course to reflect on my learning experience, and having it open for people to comment. As mentioned above, I found Yvonne's facilitation exercise interesting and useful for raising awareness of a whole range of issues that can arise when using blogs in learning and teaching.
In terms of my own teaching, I chose blogs to address the issue of how to assess development of intercultural competence such as understanding, analysis, and changes in attitude and behaviour, aspects that are difficult to measure by conventional testing techniques (assignments, essays, multiple choice). It was also necessary to move away from percentages to performance indicators based on learning outcomes to enable students to have a clearer understanding of what was expected. The key issue has been whether to make these blogs open to the class or just keep them open to the teacher. Opening them up to the class might encourage peer feedback but the disadvantage is students might not reflect to the same extent as if the blogs were closed. I will still keep the blogs within BlackBoard for the first year students and for those on the fully online course initially at least as their technological skills are varied and I want to have the blogs all set up for the start of the semester.
Wikis: As with blogs, I had already used a wiki for the collaborative work for the conference in Japan, but I had not really learnt how to use it properly. There is no link to this wiki as it has been deleted. I used wikis as a tool in my new intercultural competence course last year to manage group work, providing a tool for students to record thoughts and work. This worked very well. The issue as with Blogs, is whether to make the group wikis open to the other groups in the course. Making them available to other groups would be useful to provide models for weaker groups, and encourage more collaborative work.
Second Life: I found the potential offered by SL for language and culture learning most exciting and have already discussed this in previous blogs reflecting on the facilitation plan and the facilitation exercise in SL. There is still a great deal more to learn and to explore about its potential for discussion and interaction, and there are already some exciting developments, as this site for English language teaching shows. In fact ideas from any discipline can be adapted for language and culture teaching and activities can be cross-discipline. During Carolyn's facilitation in SL, I was speaking to Yvonne about an idea to have business students meet with Japanese language students to talk about Japanese business etiquette and culture. This would add authenticity and relevance for the language students, and provide useful insights into ways of interacting in the Japanese business world for business studies students.
If I were to say just one thing about the online communication tools - it is my raised awareness of the potential they offer to enhance learning and teaching, and I endorse Veronique's comment where she reflects on online communication tools, that they must be used to meet a learning and teaching need and not just for the sake of using them:
The tools must fit the purpose, that is, to enable and support the desired learning experiences, and be relatively simple and user-friendly.
There can be difficulties mastering them, but as George Siemens said, if our goal is learning, then we will get round the various technical issues in order to achieve the learning outcomes. In my own case, while I have not mastered all the various technologies available, I have a much better understanding of them, and will deal with the technical issues when I need to use a particular technology for a learning and teaching issue.
My Wiki will be an ongoing project open to language teachers within my own institution and in other institutions in all sectors, to encourage discussion and create a resource bank of ideas for language learning activities integrating these tools. I regret not having the time to participate in other participants' wikis as I think they are a very effective tool for collaborative learning. I have found that they help address the issue of time and place to do group work for face to face students as well as totally online students, and can be a forum to manage the needs of specific groups of students. For example, speakers of Mandarin or Korean in an interpreting paper where the teacher only speaks European languages, can exchange ideas, raise questions and seek clarification from each other after lectures.
C Articulate the skills required for maintaining a successful online learning community.
What I have learnt about facilitating:
Bronwyn in her email forum discussion of 18 September 'The Community', talks about Gilly Salmon's five stage model, and that the aim of this course is to get participants to stage five - the facilitator stage. As I said at the beginning of this blog, I believe the success of the forms of social interaction in an online learning community, is dependent on how effectively a range of tools are integrated into the course, and how various characteristics of online communities and issues - learners' prior knowledge, technological competence, and other factors as identified by Yvonne in her blog - are handled and resolved with skillfull facilitating.
Arnold (2006) concludes that the degree of student engagement in social activities or cognitive activities depends on the extent of teacher involvement and input in the activities. Just as the need for teacher involvement varies according to the activity, the nature of the involvement and input required also varies. All this requires skill on the part of the facilitator. The teacher versus facilitator debate is still going on in the Facilitating eLearning Communities course email forum as a result of Carolyn's facilitation in SL. I do not think facilitating is new or only applies to online communities but the online community does have specific issues because of the environment and the reliance on technology. If we are concerned with teaching learners how to learn, then we need to develop the skills outlined by Arnold (2006), and in other frameworks and models such as the Australian Flexible Learning site, and Salmon's 5-stage model.
To look over the shoulders of three other participants in this course, I think that David, Veronique and Yvonne have all covered points I think are relevant and very useful with reference to facilitating. However, the issue is translating them into practice. I think a key factor is having a sound pedagogical framework and factors such as:
- relevant learner-centred learning and teaching activities that engage and motivate the student. This requires an understanding of learning styles, needs and preferences, motivation and the affective aspect of learning, in order to keep students engaged.
- inclusion of 'process' (learning to learn) as well as subject content. Research has shown that in order for students to be able to work effectively within a CALL environment, they need to be autonomous learners (Blin, 1999; Hoven, 1999).
- alignment of, and clear links between learning outcomes and performance indicators, learning and teaching activities, and assessment activities, with regular reminders of what students should be doing to meet the learning outcomes. This article by David Nicol provides some useful guidelines for assessment. In fact the whole issue from the Escalate website is useful.
- regular dialogue - teacher/student and student/student that takes into account the affective as well as cognitive and metacognitive aspects of learning.
- a good understanding of the technologies available and competence in essential ones especially those being used for any particular learning and teaching activity.
- a good understanding and management of the characteristics specific to online learning (eg the ebb and flow). This was done very well on the Facilitating eLearning Communities course.
Perhaps an important question is whose blogs did I tend to read and why? I regularly read Veronique's postings and I read Yvonne's from time to time. I dipped into Sarah's and Carolyn's when I recognised topics I could relate to. Sarah has a mutual interest in e-portfolios, and Carolyn and I have Skyped, and she has developed an interest in Second Life. Unfortunately I skimmed topics in their blogs as I did not relate to discussions on midwifery, but I will go back over some of them as the discussion on learning and teaching does trigger ideas for language teaching. Why did I start reading the blogs written by these particular participants? I think it was because they commented on my blog so I knew their names and they helped me feel part of the community (although I kept forgetting whose blog was whose as their names were not in the titles).
D Summarise the ideas, experiences and understanding of at least three other participants in the course and whether you agree with their postings - perceptions and beliefs about facilitation.
I liked Veronique's and Yvonne's blogs because they seemed to be like-minded. Whether this sort of affirmation is effective learning or not (as discussed in Derek Chirnside's lecture/discussion), I found it was what I needed to feel comfortable. I also gravitated towards Veronique's blog because the entries were never too long, and were well laid out and easy to read. I would often go to them to check my understanding of what was going on (a guest talk or discussion), or to catch up on something I had missed. She also offered the opportunity for us to help each other, and often gave me links and guidance either through emails or Skype. Yvonne often related her experiences and new knowledge to her classroom teaching, and having been in the secondary sector and taught some business studies, I understood the issues she was reflecting on. Both Veronique and Yvonne raised questions. Some of the other blog postings were offputting because, under pressure of time, they seemed just too long (like this one has become) , others I dipped into depending on the topic of discussion. I only really started reading David's blog at the end of the course; I find his postings interesting because he was not afraid of being provocative.
ConclusionJust as one matures as a learner as one masters one's discipline, and is 'immature' when starting a new discipline, the same can happen on an online course. Some of the participants on this course were more 'mature' and comfortable from the start, others matured as they progressed through the course: they became aware of requirements, their knowledge grew and they became more comfortable with the tools and the environment. The challenging thing about this course for me was its cyclical nature - access to new tools and strategies occurred throughout and even up to the end. As Bronwyn says, different people are engaged at different times, and more at certain times than others. I became really engaged when Second Life was introduced right the end - that was challenging but has added a new and exciting dimension to my approach to learning and teaching languages and culture. I think, in the case of language learning, there is still a way to go to develop a methodology/pedagogy for online learning communities, and that second language acquisition theory may well have to adjust to take the environment into account.
The other aim I had was to experience being an online student. This apparently according to Kempe 2001, Salmon, 2000b, Ambrose, 2001, cited in Effective Online Facilitation in the section 'On teacher preparation' , is what teachers should do to learn how to be effective online facilitators. This has been such a valuable experience, as I am aware of the fears, needs and frustrations that can occur and that can affect motivation. I am particularly more aware of the anxiety that can occur when the technology goes wrong, and especially if one's computer does not work. I have more ideas about the types of activities that can engage students, cater for different learning styles, and develop the necessary knowledge and skills both to master the content of a course and also to develop necessary competencies such as self-assessment, reflection, appropriate strategies and the sustaining of self motivation. While I might not have mastered all the tools, I am more aware of how they can be used to meet particular learning and teaching needs.
Sheryl said that a true test of a community is whether it continues after the course. I have every intention of continuing to participate in this community if that is possible. I find the contact is stimulating, and continued participation will help me keep up with changes, exchange ideas and see what peers are doing in their learning and teaching even though not in the same discipline.
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