Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Fos day 2

Ye like with my day 1 blog I have written too much again but this is my learning journal so reflective notes for my benefit to help me think through what I have been doing and learning.

I spent a little more time in the FOS G+ community G+ still doesn't feel like a great place for hosting large communities, like with lots of things they can be fit for purpose but just don't attract some people and really work for others - Twitter is perhaps one of the best recentish examples of social network software that has the Marmite love it or hate it touch. I at first was not impressed but came to appreciate it over time, I have used G+ for many years and apart from the Hangouts it has never grown on me. That might be partly because of all the stuff that happens outside of what I would like to happen but is mostly just due to how it is organised.

The second chat was focused on flexible pedagogies with this as the core reading:

I popped into the chat stream this morning to see what had been added since I left and James Clay had posted a link to his previous thoughts on informal learning -  I agree with the thoughts about not being able to design informal learning, as soon design by a tutor or teacher creeps into in the real world the learning becomes formalised although that does depend on your conceptualisation of what formalised means. Discussions I have had over the last 18 years about this have tended to include reference to what happens in organisations in spaces such as around the water cooler or coffee area. Here conversation can be less formal and perhaps more spontaneous but I question how free that really is with the potential for a line manager to be round the corner or to arrive without being noticed - do people hold back? Does conversation tend to be more focused on gossip or moaning about colleagues or the organisation rather than learning from each other about stuff that is not directly related to accredited or work-focused, role-related learning?

One of the first online learning communities I joined included in its online design the provision of spaces for informal learning, it was hosted in FirstClass and included community folders tagged as the kinds of places people might hang out informally, there was a bar, a bus, a garden, a train, and more besides. It felt artificial and there was a lot of talk about e-moderating back then (Gilly Salmon style) so a suspicion that there would be some staff monitoring so it did not feel totally informal to some members although there was plenty of off topic discussion it mostly seemed to be social posturing and arranging liaisons. Today with more social spaces available I think it is better to suggest that students self organise in spaces that are tutor free/ Having discussed informal learning and made the suggestion I have been provided with insights into such spaces and they do seem to sometimes provoke strong bonding and valuable discussions. When the BA LTR course first started a small group of students did this on their own initiative and created  more recently LTR cohorts have use G+ circles as informal spaces and I think there is some Facebook related interaction as well. Although the G+ spaces were informal the discussions seem to have often been very much focused on course related topics, I think the move might have been more related to dissatisfaction with the course discussion software limits on layout and tools rather than a need to escape tutors for informal learning. Several groups have then invited tutors into the spaces but that risked the whole course facilitation moving out of the institutional VLE and I was not keen on that fragmentation so suggested they post key points from their informal discussions into the VLE spaces.

We were asked to add an image that represented flexible pedagogies I had really struggled with that during the day and could only think of a blank canvas on which tutors and students could negotiate what and how they would learn in an equal partnership co-learning co-constructing. Given we are talking about flexible pedagogies for courses that was perhaps a step too far as negotiation would have to include topic and accreditation criteria. I would love to try that but I think perhaps a little too disruptive to gain institutional adoption. The notion of equality was questioned in the Twitter shower I think it rather came out of the rapidity of the discussion - equal in terms of mutual respect in this context as the tutor does hold the keys to what needs to be achieved and how that might be achieved within the framework of the institution so there is some hierarchy implicit.  n the time-limited pressure of a one hour chat I eventually hit on an old picture of a day with friends on Vilarrube beach near where we lived in Galicia. I wasn't impressed with myself but it served the purpose of stimulating my thinking about flexible pedagogies.

This kind of setting provides some materials, some structure, some limitations, but also adds some freedom in that adjacent to the castle that we had all set out to communally build were independently built structures such as dragons and cars, the boys can be seen in the distance starting to make a tunnel world -  their idea - dozens of holes linked by dozens of tunnels. Temperature was in the high 30s so forays into the sea were frequent. I guess that could equate to my needing breaks from study - diversions and mulling things over times to refresh the mind.

I have got a bit diverted into thinking about informal learning and identity, remembering just now about off topic discussions that developed integrated into the main online learning community discussions, I recall topics with stances being defended via vigorous evidence based debate such as creationism / evolution and the role of genetics and whether evolution can happen on a relatively rapid time-frame, particle physics and the possibilities of quantum computers - how will moving from binary to zero, one and 'simultaneous zero and one' affect calculating processes/power? Debate about single/multi-universe possibilities, discussions about cooking, health, keeping fit are just some of the seemingly spontaneous topics that come to mind and that fall into the informal learning category in my opinion. Some were spawned by course related topics such as discussing literature about reflective practice and flow theory leading to a chat about about the value of mulling critical incidents over when running or hill walking. All helped people learn, be that about how to express themselves and debate without causing or taking offence or how to find further information to bolster their arguments, or just how to have fun together with relative strangers who will not meet during a course.

I am more than happy for students and staff to chat about all sorts of things in the same space as their learning discussions, clear labelling of threads is important so those who want to can filter out what they do not want to be involved in. Sharing thoughts about what you are interested in helps convey identity, engaging in debates such as the creationism / evolution one also helps model good behaviour and critical friendship - debate the idea and accept difference rather than attacking it or getting angry about a person's stance. All very useful practice for engaging in course related critical peer review or debate.

One aspect that can limit flexibility is the mode of assessment, many institutions seem to have set processes for assessment that limit the product - submit a bound thesis, hand in an electronic file through something like Turnitin, post work in a community portal that picks certain things up as assessable, fill in an online quiz that is automatically marked there are many approaches and many of them impose limits; often text is to the forefront. One driver is reducing the time spent by markers, another is homogeneity so like is compared with like across a cohort. I had a discussion at the JISC connect more conference in Bristol and heard frustrated tutors complaining about the technological dog wagging the pedagogical tail - that is a situation that really limits pedagogy.

One of the aspects of the Ultraversity project I was very pleased to be associated with was the use of assessment by online portfolio. This amplifies how students can convey information both during the course of a module and at the point of assessment. There are very few restrictions as to what can be included, there is a limitation in that files have to be in the portfolio so can't be hosted online, this enables date stamping so ensures no changes are made after the submission date.  Assessors may not be able to install new software on their machines so access and interoperability is a key concern and addressed during semester to ensure that what is submitted can be assessed. File size can also be an issue although I have accepted portfolios that included single files of over 250Mb with agreement by prior negotiation that the creation of high resolution video was a work based competence so should be assessed in hi resolution format. There is no typical portfolio but over the three years a student might well have included at various times: Word, PDF, PowerPoint, Excel, various video formats, various audio formats, Prezi, screen shots of maps made using a range of concept mapping tools, Gant charts, animations, scanned paper sketches, electronic drawings, graphs and charts, images and posters, tables, diagrams, cartoons, Powtoons and more.

It was mentioned that institutions can be resistant to flexibility / innovation and I can't disagree but my experience at Anglia Ruskin has shown that they can also be willing to let people explore new approaches and to adopt some of what is learned into the mainstream. Economics are key to maintaining an institution and it is understandable that the new needs to be shown to have benefit before large scale investment can be directed along non -traditional vectors.

Since the chat I have also been thinking about what my online pedagogy is based on, I don't feel I can wear the badge of any specific learning theory, I am not an instructivist or constructivist, I don't really go for behaviourism and not keen on multiple intelligences and definitely not learning styles, I don't like dogma or didactic stances, I can't just accept 'truths' and don't see truths as permanent states or 'proof' or 'truth' as particularly useful concepts; proofs are limited by current strategies and often overthrown as time progresses understanding, 'truth' seems a dangerous concept that can limit thinking. I admired Alfred Korzybski and his idea in that the concept of 'is' is a limiting factor although it is a word that is hard to avoid using it should not be taken as meaning an absolute belief or state. When we say x is y we are only mapping our notion of what x might be; a map is not the territory.  Knowing is a fragile and individual thing, I can't believe in collective intelligences. I am not hugely keen on measuring students against set criteria but can accept that in most situations that is needed for credit bearing awards.

 I do want to help students develop critical thinking skills; to be aware of the fragility of knowledge and able to challenge their own internal constructions about reality; be able to articulate themselves well in whatever medium they choose; to listen to what others have to say; to listen/read deeply and critically and to say openly what they think without seeing any of it as needing to be set in stone or intransigent. I am sure that can be achieved by many people using many pedagogies and am still struggling as to whether it is possible to, or even worth, defining my own.


  1. Hi Ian,

    Wow, this is a waterfall of thoughts! Lovely to see that FOS seems to be a useful opportunity to reflect on your practice and wider issues and opportunities. You seem to be thinking through the writing process. It is wonderful! I often do this as well but my posts are never that detailed. I seem to use pictures more easily than words. You have given this type of expression a go as well.

    You mention formal and informal learning and how if we pre-design informal learning for the students this becomes something else. I am wondering if this scaffold can be helpful to students if we progressively let go? You also made me think about non-formal learning which is a term I have struggled understanding but recently, I think I have cracked it. Well I think I have thanks to Grainne Conole... I can now better see the difference between informal and non-formal learning and am not sure if in a world where everything seems to blend or run into each other, we need all these terms... What are your thoughts around this? Would love to find out.

    Thank you for joining us this week.


  2. Thanks for the comment, 'thinking through writing' is a good way of expressing it, I mix synaesthesia and dyslexia and the thinking, talking, writing processes frequently interfere with each other.

    The thoughts re the problem with pre-design of informal learning came from reading James Clay's blog although he was talking about located learning and I am in the online learning world, however the same conundrum exists in both - the creation of places in which it might take place, along with permissioning / encouraging students seems to work fairly well in both worlds. Something that I remembered after writing was that during my time at The Ultralab we used to occasionally have team meetings outdoors, sometimes in a nearby beer garden and sometimes on the move such as a walk by the canal. Although some of these were planned and organised there were spontaneous meetings as well. There was usually little in the way of an agenda and often a lot of productive unplanned discussion and a fair bit of time spent on vectors that were way off our research or work-role contexts. The process helped team bonding and could be seen as including elements of informal and/or non-formal learning.

    I do think we get too tied down into categorising everything into neat boxes - that sometimes makes it easier to talk in specifics but can also become almost nonsensical at times when it all gets too artificial. The outdoor meetings and the value and the blend of formality and informality would also be apparent were I to say: "I was one of a bunch of professionals who decided to meet in beer gardens and for walks, we talked about all sorts of useful stuff, some of which we had planned and some of which just popped into the experience, we all felt that we deepened our friendship and learned loads." Does it actually matter that much where the boundaries were between the informal and informal? many papers could be written on that but would there be any point? As you imply I also feel the real world is a blended fuzzy place but we also have to contend with being part of a micromanaged institutionalised world where time is money and every second has to be justified re productivity in terms that fit policies and accepted procedures and record keeping - fuzzy blendy activities are hard to tick box.

    I use image banners in my module spaces to create a sense of place and do use pictures / diagrams in my learning resources a fair bit - some of them can be seen on the Posters blog post including an animated one used during an online induction. I never use other people's images, always my own photos unless I am talking about someone else's image. That post was used to encourage students to make a poster that used text and a relevant image at the start of the course, so many inspirational posters just seem to have the text stuck on any old background. The students go on to create photo-stories, comic strips and eventually animations and videos if they wish to do so. They leave the course with highly refined presentations skills.


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