it’s the end of week two in open networked learning and things are about to take off. we’ve had a luxuriously relaxed start, with a simple little task to ease us into a working style in our PBL groups and learn the FISh approach. yeah.
but that’s really challenging. like, SUPER challenging! the first thing i learned in this course was that students taking classes with face-to-face class time have a massive advantage because they have a really clear rhythm imposed on them and specific time set aside for working on a given class. if only they knew how lucky they are… right now i’m really craving some solid synchronous work time but that’s so much harder than you’d think. so far, i’ve been able to attend the pre-course face-to-face meeting and one google hangout with my PBL group. every other event (be it a webinar or a hangout) has conflicted with my work schedule. on the one hand, i’m in a busy time right now and that’s just life. but on the other hand, i see really clearly that it will be super important for me to actually schedule things for this course so that i don’t run the risk of falling behind or letting my PBL group down. at the same time, it is going to be really important for our PBL group as a whole to communicate better about timelines. so far, we’ve been pretty agreeable and approaching things from the perspective of “we thought we’d have a hangout to talk about this – who can join?” and “it would be good if everyone completed this thing by this day.” really good start, but now we’re moving in to a tighter schedule and i think time is going to run away from us.
which brings me to the other part of my title. at the university of toronto, one of my many jobs was on the teaching team of a first-year engineering design course. the course covered pretty much all of the practical soft skills that real engineers need to have if they want to be successful. this included communication (written, visual, oral), the engineering design process, research skills, and teamwork. where this relates to ONL is in what i observed when students started working in groups to do design work or solve problems. one of two things happened after they read the problem:
- they jumped right to a solution without ever stopping to discuss the problem, or
- they spent a disproportionately large amount of time discussing different ways to look at and think about the problem, and then had almost no time to work toward a solution.
this came down to decision making when they were planning their strategy and identifying the right time to progress to the next stage of a problem. in groups that were successful (and i should note that most of the time students were assigned groups, so they didn’t get to work with people they already knew well or worked well with) the students established roles really early and laid out a practical approach that set limits on each task. early in their teamwork, we provided them with some guidance by asking them to do a learning style inventory using kolb’s theory of experiential learning as a guide. it’s a simple inventory that has had its fair share of critique, but i think it’s a nice starting point. if you overlay the learning styles with kolb’s learning cycle, you get this :
and the inventory looks at the four corners. the students get a result that tells them which part of the learning style they tend to prefer, and this provides them with a starting point for discussing how they will tackle and structure their group work.
the mistake i think we’ve been making in my PBL group so far is spending too much time in the diverging and assimilating regions, and as a result we’re struggling to get stuff done. i think part of the challenge is that we didn’t do a very good job at our first hangout of actually establishing a working process for the group. we did agree that a different person would take point for each topic, but the choice of who does what is yet to be made. we’ve been very democratic when working through the intro problem and have left room for everyone to contribute at each stage before moving on to the next one. but i wonder if maybe we shouldn’t be dividing and conquering. it could be that it’s not necessary that everyone actively contributes to every stage of each problem. maybe instead we can have a couple of people do part a, then pass their work off to others who build on it for part b, and so on. as long as everyone takes the time to look at all parts, we all get the benefit of working on the problem, and then we’re not waiting around for people who might be swamped that particular day.
but perhaps this is all part of the course design. maybe the course leaders are a little bit evil and wanted us to experience this struggle without the support of a set of instructions on how to manage the group work. we’re learning by doing and failing. i’m not afraid to admit that this is exactly what i would do if i were running this course…
 Kolb, A.Y. and D.A. Kolb. “Learning Styles and Learning Spaces: Enhancing Experiential Learning in Higher Education.” Acad. Manag. Learn. Edu., 2005, 4:2, 193–212.