Monday, October 13, 2014

POTCert Week 6: Student activities

Lonely with hundreds of learners
Around 2000 I enthusiastically jumped into an online course that was offered by a university known for being a pioneer in online learning. Up until then, I'd been enjoying the connectedness with people, ideas, information and technology since I had logged into the internet for the first time in 1997.  As I joined the course, I was very motivated and expected to have a memorable learning experience with an international cohort and it came as an absolute shock to me when my motivation started to disappear and I realized how lonely it could feel learning online, no matter how interesting the subject matter is, how many people I was supposed to be learning with or how interesting and new the tools were.

Community and Pedagogy
I believe that while designing activities and selecting tools I must be guided not only by the Learning Objectives but it is absolutely necessary that I am also guided by the objective of Creating a Community conducive to learning.

Flexible tools
On thinking about the different activities that I can use to serve both the learning objectives and the building of the community and the tools that I can use for those activities, I realized that most of the online tools that I know were not originally created with education in mind, but many of them were adopted by educators and learners looking for new ways of connecting and creating meaning. Also, most of the tools can be used in so many ways and for so many purposes, for example a video can be created by the teacher or the learner to explain content, for self introduction, to reflect etc., therefore I plan to not only consider different tools for different activities but also think of how to use the available tools in different ways.

The following are few ideas that I'd like to try out and focus on to lay the foundation for a supportive learning community.

1- Getting to know each other (introductions) & learning the Tools
I would like to start this activity 2 weeks to a month before the actual course starting date.

  • Ask the learners to create a self introduction piece using, text, video, audio, cartoon etc. This can be according to set parameters or free. Examples of parameters could be maximum 35 words, 30 seconds, or set of information like how you'd like to be called, your favorite pass-time, your favorite pet, choose an animal to represent you and explain why, favorite site etc.
  • Send learners a list of some online tools that they can use in creating the introductions such as Wordle Quozio Zeega Gyazo Voicecloud Vocaroo etc. and encourage them use any other that they know and can share later.
  •  I would like to provide simple guidelines to help students protect their privacy and their image such as reminding them that what they create online will most probably be there for a long time if not forever, that it is very easy for anyone to Google them or by sheer chance find the information, to have fun and be creative but be respectful and not offensive.
  • Provide a space where the trainees can share their creations and comment or ask question on others' at the beginning of the course.

I think starting this before the course allows the students to have enough time to get familiar with some of the online tools, start thinking of their identity online whether within the LMS or outside it, and be creative and have enough time to interact and have fun conversations about those creations once they've shared them as well as help each other.

2- Ice Breakers/energizers
while I am using activity no.1 (introductions) as an ice breaker, I would like to use short, fun activities that can serve as energizers several times during a course to create opportunities for more relaxed, friendly interactions between the students and provide quieter, more shy students to participate. Examples if one of the topics is Leadership: Create a short satyric representation of the different types of leadership, organize a Tweetchat  where students can share quotes related to leadership

3- Building Shared Purpose
I can facilitate the creation of shared purpose though team assignments, projects short or long and also by agreeing the learning objectives.
While I already have the course objectives I would like to make it more relevant to the trainees, so instead of asking them to just read them, I am thinking of two other activities:
 - Ask the trainees to individually think of 3 different things that they would like to learn during the course then share them in a Forum, Google Doc or titanpad perhaps with a smaller group. These can be revisited during the course.
 - Ask the trainees to select one or two learning objectives and share how they think they can be useful to them in their lives now or in the future.

4- Blogging
I believe that blogging is one of the best tools for reflection, discussions, getting feedback, building a portfolio and evidence of learning an online learning situation, but I also know how difficult it can be to put thought in writing. In order to facilitate the process of blogging I would like to :

  • Create a space Forum perhaps or a space of aggregated blogs
  • Encourage learners to make very short posts/comments reflecting on individual ideas, pieces of content (e.g a video or and article) as they go through the material. Those posts are not required and not assessed but they can receive feedback or they can be discussion points.
  • May also create some open ended questions about different parts of the material in a way that help learners focus their their thoughts without limiting their reflection process.
  • Culminate in a final assessed post.

As I write those ideas I realize that they are still raw and need tweaking but they are ideas that I would like to pursue and develop.

General thoughts

There's so much more to think about in selecting the right activities and tools for a supportive community to develop and the learning to happen and these are some of the main ideas that stand out for me:
  • Allow individual learners time to think and prepare on their own but encourage and facilitate collaboration. In real life this is what happens, they talk together, ask questions, share ideas and support so why not online.
  • For group work, create ways to vary the team member selection method (self serve vs assigned). Also roles can be assigned and learners should be encouraged to also participate in deciding the roles.
  • Discussion forums need some agreed rules otherwise they can turn into a chaotic confusing space difficult to navigate.
  • Learners can be encouraged to volunteer to moderate or lead different activities.
I think a supportive community in an online course is created when learners first start to see each other as people, co learners who have interests, backgrounds, challenges etc. like them and not just names listed online and when those learners feel acknowledged, accepted and valued. Those learners then start to form connections with those who share and value their interests, offer them help or ask for their help. There are so many informal but strong and successful communities online that as an educator I can learn from.

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