About Ana Cristina Pratas

Educator, blogger, curator; interested in educational technology, educational innovation, online education; love photography, music, seas and open skies

When Walls Talk

Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash

Over the last summer I had the opportunity to take part as a trainer on a new professional development programme for Saudi Arabian educators in Finland. This transnational educational programme, “Building Leadership for Change” would last six months, with the first initial 3 months focused on brushing up participants’ English language skills. The different groups of educators, (teachers, school inspectors and supervisors),  were  spread out across several different university campuses. My group was based in Tampere and had an overall good level of English. The programme, though language focused, was also based on pedagogical themes which were given to the language teachers to develop. From reviewing issues related to the roles of learners and teachers, to different approaches of assessment and teacher observation, the 3 months were an intense journey and discussion through  topics which make up the day-to-day life of educational practitioners.

(Photo by Ruthie on Unsplash)

As in any other transnational educational project, there was content and context. In this particular case, I would bring the content and participants would bring the context – their educational context. Though this may apply in many other educational situations, significant learning can only happen if course participants consider the content (whether it is a new digital tool or a novel approach to doing teacher observations) as relevant to their context. As a trainer, my role was mostly to  model (as so often Downes refers to) while giving time and space for participants to debate, discuss and reflect on what could be integrated into their own daily practices as educators. Their teaching/educational context was always at the forefront, making content relevant to them.

Like on many courses, there was a moodle which served to share content and discussion boards. However, a LMS does not give learners ownership and so, each participant had their own digital portfolio as well. While F2F classes were filled with discussions and debates, poster design and training games (among other activities),  these narratives of learning were also included in their ePortfolios. Unlike the LMS, their ePortfolios provided the much needed sense of ownership. Here was the space where they could keep articles which were of more interest to them, digital artifacts that they created throughout the course, (for example, their blogs and other digital creations),  their weekly learning reflections and even traces of their participation in the LMS discussions. These discussions were significant for two main reasons: on the one hand, reflecting critically on one’s learning takes time and practice, and with time, the quality of reflections develops into something more tangible and significant for the learner to look back to and reflect further. On the other hand, it is through shared reflections and discussion that knowledge is constructed and given meaning, a shared meaning and not only an imposition of another educational system for PD purposes. The selected ePortfolio also included collaborative features, i.e. sharing and sending messages, by which participants could communicate and comment.

(Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash)

Day by day and with the passing of the weeks, a learning community was established, with male and female participants contributing towards their own course, fine tuning  their own professional insights while working together and balancing new and different approaches in the field of education.

Novelties? Many, as was to be expected. However, it is in the creation rather than imitation of educational systems and thought that real change can be introduced. These need to be closely related to trainees’ teaching context.

It is when learners take ownership of their learning, whether through their presentations, mini research projects, their narratives of teaching and learning, all reflected and visible in their ePortfolios, that one can say, yes! walls do not whisper learning – they talk!

 

 

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Learning Success

To know what rain feels like, one has to actually go out, let the water drops touch one’s skin. That is water. That is rain.

You have to not only see, but experience it.

So what has rain got to do with learning?

In order to learn anything, one needs to be involved in their learning process. One needs to experience learning – that process in which one is actively engaged in finding out about something new, in experimenting, perhaps even in failing and trying to succeed again.

Until one does.

As a learner myself and an educator, I find it increasingly frustrating to keep distinguishing between F2F and online learning. Yes, there are differences as there are differences in every context, but there are equally many similarities.

Learner autonomy and the need to be proactive in one’s learning, is the same.

These characteristics may not come naturally to students who have little or no experience of being autonomous, independent, responsible learners, but with time and practise, they too can succeed.

However, today it has been mostly how learners can become successful when studying online that has taken up my mind.

What other tips to become a successful online learner would you include?

Images from Pexels

Achieving Change through Collaboration and Cooperation

As an educator, I have always been aware that one feature of my role, was change. Not necessarily change on a global or national scale, but rather, introducing and implementing small steps of change in my daily practices .

Encouraging students to be success instead of doing poorly in their academic lives; changing how culture stereotypes may not always live up to their hype; change in the assumptions and expectations  that learners have in regard to their lives after the (relative) safety of classrooms. These are mere examples that every educator will recognise in their teaching practices. Sharing regular changes in perspective and attitudes are embedded in the role of educators.

In recent years my role as an agent of change has broadened both in scope and scale. It has become easier for me to train teachers in developing countries, for instance. It is easier to collaborate and cooperate across borders as well.

In my mind, it is also more urgent, more necessary to participate and engage in the changes happening within the eduscape. Not all is necessarily positive within the world/s of EdTech, for instance, but one needs to be aware of what is taking place in order to make the best informed decisions. When it comes to changing teaching practices, it has always been my belief that positive, constructive change happens from the grassroots upwards. Participants themselves must bring about the change they require, the change they wish to see implemented and spread in their educational institutions.

It is in this sense that I’d like to point out how at TAMK, teachers are actively engaging in such a process of grassroot discussion and action for change.

Successful change needs to begin from the bottom upwards. Successful change requires cooperation – whether across departments in an institution or across borders. In today’s world, multidisciplinary approaches are necessary for changing problems into solutions.  That is especially vital for supporting teachers as well.

One constantly comes across how education in Finland leads the world. There are many diverse reasons for that. However, putting into practice what one believes in, pulling together internal resources for change, is one approach that exists in Finland. One program that reaches out to the world is explained here by Mark Curcher. Digitmentorit is another example of how education and training in Finland differs and achieves the quality it is known for.

Change and educational leadership come from within.

Finding a way to accomplish transformational education lies in the will to achieve.

Winter apples do not need to be objects of desire, kept out of reach.

Change is not an elusive, imaginary process. Change is here, change is now.

 

Change is knowing that there are no limits when there is a will to change.

What changes are you engaging in now throughout 2016?

 

 

 

Further Suggestions:

Challenging our Pedagogy – Hybrid Pedagogy’s Editors Picks

Finding a Way – George Couros

Quality Assurance in Blended Courses – BlendKit2014

 

Once a course is designed and implemented, there is a need to ensure it meets a criteria of quality. But where to find this criteria? And will every check-list make sense for every blended course?

Despite the need for quality assurance, the answer is no, not all criteria can be easily applied to every blended course. Nevertheless, I think that by starting with best practices will definitely help towards ensuring a course’s quality. For instance, I tend to perceive authentic learning tasks as a corner stone to online learning (as well as to any kind of learning context).

Another element which is essential for online courses, is a space for community building. Nevertheless, the question still remains – who determines the quality, value of the course and how?

There may be matrixes and course standards to follow, but in the end, it will be the students who feel whether they have learnt something or not. In other words, it is whether course participants perceive the value and quality of what they have learnt and how the course was processed. A key element in blended courses is how the F2F context and online context is connected – as this will certainly be a major item of evaluation.

Course assessments are never easy, especially when an instructor can spend so much time and effort in setting up a well thought of course. One approach to ensuring quality of a course is to ensure that quality rubrics are aligned to learning outcomes. Much like other teaching contexts, quality rubrics should be clearly linked to the learning objectives that students need to achieve and in turn, these need to be shown to students. In other words, students need to be told what the learning objectives are and what and how they need to do in order to achieve them. This last aspect ties in well with what BlendKit’s chapter on quality assurance points out, namely that if quality assurance relies only on rubrics which don’t take into account the “lived in experience of students and teachers”, and their interactions in the teaching/learning process, then there is something definitely missing.

Besides weekly benchmarking for instructors on how a course is proceeding, regular feedback from students, whether in form of a survey, a journal prompt, student-reflection or even a simple sentence, are activities which help in maintaining course quality.

References:

BlendKit Chapter 5 – Quality Assurance in Blended Learning

Ragan, L., 2007, Best Practices in Online Teaching

Wilcoxon, K., 2011, Building an Online Learning Community

Types of Assignments for Blended Learning – BlendKit2014

via photopin cc

 One of the challenges of BlendKit2014, was to take time and consider what types of assignments and tasks could be integrated in a F2F context and which would be online. Between the two contexts, there should be some form of integration – neither should only be a supplement of the other, but rather function smoothly integrated. Therefore, there needs to be learning activities which may be carried out online, as well as activities in the F2F context.

Condie & Livingston (2007) observe how with digital technology, there has been a shift of focus from teachers teaching to students learning, and how learners today are creators of their own knowledge. In other words, with the wide variety of digital tools available, it is possible for assignments which reflect learning to be created online and equally submitted online. With this shift, it also means that learners need to be more autonomous in their learning. Nevertheless, as in all learning contexts, I think there needs to be clear guidance as to the nature of tasks, how they should be done, and what the expected learning outcomes should be.

One key to successful approach to integration is what Sands, (2002) refers to as “interactivity rather than delivery”, highlighting how,

“While information-transfer may be more effective online, simply putting materials up on the web will not guarantee that students engage with and learn from them. For that, you need activities that require students to perform basic academic tasks, such as summary and analysis, and that place them in conversation with each other, such as through responses to each others’ summaries and analyses. For every student who says in my course evaluations that they enjoyed or learned from lectures, there are scores who report higher engagement because of interactions with each other as well as the teacher.”

Aycock et al (2002) also stress the need to place pedagogy before technology when designing blended courses, explaining how merely transferring course content onto the web will not provide a satisfactory learning experience. In fact, in my view, it is the social nature of learning which will enhance the learning experience, particularly in regard to online tasks. Lynch et al (2009) point out how many faculty members found that “online discussions result in more and better interaction compared to face-to-face courses. In contrast, undergraduate faculty found online courses as having decreased interaction and quality of interaction compared to face-to-face courses. “

 Singh, (2003)  suggests different kinds of activities as exemplified in the table below:

This example was from 2003; every year there appears more and different kinds of digital tools which online learners can use, and these changes may aid further learners’ creation of assignments. For example, conference calls can be easily put into practice today with Google Hangouts – both between the teacher and students as well as among students.

ePublicist via photopin cc

One important aspect, which I think cannot be understated, is the need that learners are aware that it is expected that they become self-regulated learners, and are able to demonstrate a degree of learning maturity. By having a space on the course where interaction among participants can flow both freely and in a structured form (i.e. related to the specific task and topic), this would greatly help the sense of isolation that may occur when studying online. It also gives learners who tend to be quieter in a F2F context, an opening for them to connect and interact with others.

Other tasks could include debates, fishbowl activities (i.e when learners are assigned into separate groups and have to work cooperatively), case-studies and digital storytelling as well as group projects. These are all learning activities which can then be continued and integrated  in the F2F context.

 

References:

Aycock, A., Carla Garnham, Robert Kaleta, 2002, Lessons Learned from the Hybrid Course Project

BendKit Reader – Chapter 4 

Condie, R. and Kay Livingston, 2007, Blending online learning with traditional approaches: changing practices,British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 38 No 2 2

Lynch, D., G. Kearsley, K. Thompson, 2009, Faculty Use of Asynchronous Discussions in Online Learning

Sands, P., 2002, Inside Outside, Upside Downside – Strategies for Connecting Online and Face-to-Face Instruction in Hybrid Courses

Singh, H., 2003,  Building Effective Blended Learning Programs, Educational Technology, Vol 43, No 6

Wegmann, S. , K. Thompson, 2014,  SCOPe-ing Out Interactions in Blended Environments, in Research Perspectives in Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 2 (preview of book)

Blending Assessment – BlendKit2014

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Blended courses need to consider not only what kind of assessment will take place, but also how much assessment will be online and how much will be in a F2F context. In other words, will there be a balance between the two contexts or will one weigh more heavily than the other and if so, which assessment tasks will bear more weight?

Depending on the course subject and the time dedicated to both teaching contexts (i.e. online and F2F), assessment tasks may include  multiple choice, essay type assignments, in-class discussions and presentations as well as a reflection log. I think it is important to also have a balanced assessment plan with both F2F assessment (which may hopefully avoid online cheating issues) but also assignments with the use of technology, thus making good use of students already using digital technology to access the course. An example could be creating a video or other multi-media products and then uploading to the student’s or class blog, or if being used, the course LMS.

As in courses held F2F, there should also be an inclusion of formal and informal assessment. If, on the one hand, formal assessment gives both the instructor and students, feedback on their progress in terms of mastering content (e.g. a mid-term or final exam), informal assessment gives students the chance for them to test their own knowledge.

Equally important is how the assessment tasks will be evaluated. Once established what the students need to be assessed on and how (i.e. online or in the F2F context), and after the assessment tool and task has been designed, then it is time to consider the assessment criteria, in terms of how the student met the learning outcomes. Both quantitative and qualitative rubrics may be considered and these should be available to students before the assessments, very much like in other courses, whether F2F or online.

References:

10 Examples of Question Improvement – Centre for Distributed Learning, UCF

Blended Learning ToolKit

Rubric for Online Instruction

Teaching Online – Effective Online Assessment, UCF

 

Blended Interactions – BlendKit2014

Roush images via photopin cc

One main questions which called my attention during the 2nd week of BlendKit2014 was,

Is there value in student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction in all courses regardless of discipline?

I think that there always needs to be some form of interaction among students as well as between students and instructor. Just because part of the course happens to take place online, does not mean (to me) that the instructor “disappears”, letting attached content and required readings take his/her place.  The challenge is to find an appropriate balance in the scaffolding – too much, the instructor may become a “helicopter teacher”, preventing learners to explore on their own. On the other hand, too little may leave even the most motivated student feel lost/disengaged within a course.

Whether a course is wholly based on distance learning or whether it is blended, it should have the following:

* Clear instructions and expectations

* Supporting reference materials

* A suggestion of tools which enable synchronous conferencing/communication

* A project/s in which participants contribute to

It is in the last area, which contributes to community building among participants, that a great part of the interaction may occur. It is also where the interaction among learners, instructor and content may take place. In other words, it is in the building of a learning community where there is interaction among participants that learning may take place. Rather than focusing on the technology (i.e. be it a moodle or wiki or blog), there needs to be a space where ideas and discussions may engage and connect the participants on a course. Learning is the focus and purpose – not the technology. However, the choice of technology should be user-friendly for students, especially those who are beginning to learn online, whether on a blended or full-time distance course. Hence, clear instructions, not only for tasks and expectations, but also on how to use the technology should be provided.

Some projects may be individual or designed for pairs/small groups.

For individual tasks, students should be encouraged to give feedback, and adding what they think would further enrich the task; peer evaluation should be encouraged.

Fink, (2003) points out how  active learning through debates, simulations, guided design, small group problem solving,
case studies, help to involve the learner.  Active learning also includes reflection and dialogue, the space where learners, instructor and content meet; i.e. the learning community which is enabled with technology, is where these learning reflections and dialogue take place. 

Lastly, blended also includes a blend of learning spaces;  there should be spaces which are private for learning and students’ communities (just as off-line) and public spaces, where informal learning takes place.  Below is an example of the varied environments may occur (Milne).

However, it is important to bear in mind that as so much keeps changing in the online world,  virtual spaces  too will change depending on participants’ choices, course objectives and how participants wish to build their learning community (i.e. references in the image below may not be so popular today as there are other virtual spaces to communicate and create communities).

References:

Fink., L.D., 2003, A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning

Lavin, R. et al, Engagement and Communication 

MIlne, A., Designing Blended Learning Space to the Student Experience