Volvo Ocean Race, NUI Galway and online learning

The Volvo Ocean Race is in town! As I write this, the boats are due into Galway (the finishing point of the race) after midnight tonight. The last time “the Volvo” was in Galway in 2009, an estimated 10,000 people crowded into Galway city to greet the boats arriving — at 3:00 in the morning — and enjoyed sunshine and a festival atmosphere for the next 10 days. Such is the spirit of Galway. [03/07/12 Update: huge crowds attended the race finish in Galway in the early hours of this morning.]

The event is about much more than the race. For the 2012 Volvo Ocean Race event, Galway has been transformed. We have a Race Village and a Global Village where you can find food stalls, musical entertainment, comedy, sports and adventure activities, crafts and fashion, as well as science, technology and education events. There is a great programme of events scheduled at the NUI Galway pavilion where I’ll be speaking in the Ideas Lab on Tuesday and Wednesday (July 3rd and 4th) at 2pm.

I’ve been asked to speak about “Online Learning for the Future” and I look forward to meeting people and engaging in discussion about social media in education, open learning, online and blended learning, and the range of opportunities for studying at NUI Galway. I’ve prepared the following short presentation as taster, but I hope that this will lead to conversations, both in person and online.

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I didn’t want this presentation to be only about higher education and NUI Galway — online learning happens everywhere, formally as well as informally, and at all levels of education. So a few weeks ago I asked teachers involved in #edchatIE in Ireland if anyone would be willing to contribute a short video to show how they and their students are using technology. The results, from 10 different classrooms across Ireland, were amazing — see for yourself!

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From my vantage point in higher education, these are our future students, as well as our future citizens. We need to be sure that we are doing our best to welcome, engage with and challenge these students as they enter post-secondary education. That’s a big challenge for us. May the conversation continue…

Image: PAUL TODD at www.volvooceanracegalway.ie

Online education – a snapshot

Open online education is changing rapidly. The first few weeks of 2012 has seen the launch of Udacity, Stanford’s Coursera and the first course offering by MIT’s MITx. In trying to put these developments into context, I’ve drafted a table illustrating key aspects of this evolution in online education, focusing particularly on open online courseware (as opposed to more discrete OERs). This is not meant as an exhaustive catalogue, but simply as a concise summary of recent developments, enabling comparisons. [Table updated 5th March 2012.]

Full table click here:  Online education – a snapshot

(Summary table below the break.)

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 sundaune

Related blog post: Distributed Creativity: open education and challenges for higher education

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Using an LMS in HE: Making compromises

Learning Management Systems… I have had the pleasure of using 4 (yes, 4!) different LMS’s in the past few years: WebCT, Angel, Blackboard and Moodle. I currently use two, primarily –  Angel and Blackboard — as the two programmes on which I teach use different systems. In each case, the LMS offers real advantages in a higher education context: seamless connection with student enrolment systems, easy access to online gradebook features, and password-protected security. However, I’ve also encountered limitations:

  • The tools within an LMS are not necessarily the best ones for the job — particularly in terms of social networking/discussion and blogging. For example, the blogging tool in Blackboard is pretty basic (in terms of functionality, not academic administration/grading) when compared with WordPress, Blogger, Posterous, etc.
  • Sometimes my students and I want our work to be “inside the fence”, but many times we don’t. Making work open, sharable and inviting feedback from others — not necessarily students in the same course, and not even necessarily students! — is difficult with an LMS.
  • I haven’t yet found a way to integrate social bookmarking seamlessly within an LMS.
  • There are many web applications which are just not available within an LMS, e.g. RSS readers, Diigo, Twitter, Skype, etc.

In addition to these is the paradox of putting links to wonderful *open* educational resources (OERs), like Ted talks and YouTube videos, inside the confines of an LMS.

In trying to learn more about what others are thinking and doing about this dilemma, I’ve found plenty to consider — if no quick solutions.

> Matt Crosslin, in a recent excellent post If we ditch the LMS, what else could we re-think?, imagines a browser-based social learning environment — perhaps similar to RockMelt, but with additional features. As Crosslin states: “the idea would be to minimize the LMS to be in the background so students can concentrate on the place where they are learning: the web”.

> A short Educause article published in 2010, 7 Things you should know about LMS alternatives, provides a concise, balanced summary of the pros and cons of using an LMS in HE. It concludes: “The use of LMS alternatives may hold the promise of a more student-centric approach, one that encourages students to reach across the boundaries of academic terms and learning disciplines and to see their education as a coherent whole that they can maintain using a range of applications. By going outside the LMS to use tools that allow for more student engagement, more effective collaboration, and more active learning in general, instructors could establish new expectations for the LMS.”

> Finally, in a recent interview prior to the webinar Facilitating Social Interactions: Measuring engagement and promoting academic success within the LMS, Stephen Downes discussed the idea of maxmizing the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of the LMS: “The tendency [with collaborative tools] is to try to bring everybody into a single environment in order to foster collaboration, but my preference is to foster the collaborative activity itself outside the environment, and to use the environment only for reporting and communication.”

As an educator, what I’d like to do is to choose the tool which best suits the learning objective and which allows sharing and collaboration outside the specific course. And what I’d really like is to stop asking students to create work in course-specific silos — isolated in time and space from all of the work they are doing in other courses, in their workplaces, and in the rest of their lives.

In the meantime, I’ll make compromises. I’ll welcome the ease of use that the LMS gives me in terms of administration, grading and security. But I’ll use other tools, and suggest that my students try other tools, outside the LMS, where these provide the advantages described above. Not pretty, but workable.

I welcome feedback and suggestions, particularly from other LMS users in Higher Education who might be addressing similar issues.

Feedback, Support… and Passion

Last week, 15 new MScSED graduates were conferred with their degrees at NUI Galway (fortunately, before the wicked winter weather arrived). At the programme reception afterwards, graduates and their families mixed with faculty and staff in a happy, celebratory atmosphere. It’s always a joy to attend a conferring ceremony, but for the MScSED programme the sense of anticipation and excitement is that bit greater. The programme is entirely online, so during the programme we meet most of our students only at the Orientation Day and Thesis Workshop. Students who live outside Ireland we may never meet at all! But we grow to know them well, over the course of the 2-year programme, based on our regular online interactions. Graduation, then, is exciting for students and staff alike, for the chance to celebrate with people we know well but may hardly have met.

At last week’s conferring celebrations, amidst all the happy chatter, three pieces of feedback stood out for me. They were recounted by our new graduates as elements of the programme which stood out for them and were instrumental in their success:

  • Feedback – Facilitators who provided rich feedback were praised highly, for helping students to stay engaged and to dig deep for real learning.
  • Support – Individual support from module facilitators as well as ongoing support from the programme team were considered essential “so we don’t feel like we’re all alone out there”.
  • Passion – Finally, one graduate said that the best advice he received was to “choose a thesis topic that you are passionate about”. He took that advice and his passion sustained him on the long path towards completing his (excellent) thesis.

 

MScSED graduates, we congratulate you on your success! And we thank you for reminding us why we enjoy this work so much; as one of our facilitators said, celebrating your achievements with you “refills the enthusiasm reservoir”. You help us to remember, in the midst of all our activities, the importance of Feedback, Support and Passion.

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