it’s been almost two weeks since the past time my PBL group had a hangout and i have to say it has felt odd. i had to leave the hangout early because of the stomach flu (gotta love november) so the goodbye felt rushed, but at the time i thought “we’ll just talk again on sunday like we do every week, so it’s no big deal.” but that wasn’t true. sad face, for real.

this is the first, and perhaps most important, thing i learned in this course: i was totally, completely, utterly wrong in my skepticism about the possibility of building meaningful connections and experiencing impactful learning without actual face-to-face contact. at the beginning of the course i had no reference point for online learning, and when i tried to imagine all my experience in classroom learning transported to the internet, it just didn’t work. i expected a feeling of disconnectedness, and yet what i found instead was a connection so impactful that i’ve felt like something is missing these past two weeks.

so i stand corrected, and now recognize that with the right approach and a bit of work, an online learning environment can be rich and challenging and rewarding.

but i do mean that you need the right approach. we talked a lot about this in my PBL group and we all agreed that this was the critical threshold we needed to overcome. you can read a bit about it in our group’s final wiki. i have to say that putting together this final summary was a really rewarding task because it gave us a chance to reflect as a group. these final reflective blog posts are good for our individual learning, but given that the group work was such a central part of the course, it would have felt strange to not reflect as a group as well.

i’ve already been able to implement little things i’ve learned in this course. while it’s true that some things weren’t new to me, the way i used them in the course opened my eyes to greater possibilities and helped me see ways that i can enhance even my classroom teaching by making better use of digital tools and online learning approaches. as we discussed in our final group reflection, i’m so glad to have gained access to the resources that ONL has gathered, and even if i didn’t work through all parts of the course literature, i know that i will come back to it when the need arises.

and i believe that’s the best indicator of the real impact this course has had on me: at the end of the course, i know that i will use what i’ve learned and delve deeper into the things i haven’t yet mastered, which means that the course has changed the way i see part of the world and that it will continue to influence my approach to teaching and learning as i move forward in my career. that’s the real goal of university teaching, isn’t it? we want our students to take something we teach them and use it in the future. we want them to turn these ideas over in their minds and adapt them to new situations, and we hope that they’ll take the material we offer with them when they leave, not because we’ve told them it’s important, but because they truly see its value for their own pursuits.

at the end of the road, as i recover from internet explorers withdrawal and let my identity as a student take the back seat again, i’m glad for the reminder of what it feels like to be a student and for the new perspectives that i will bring with me to my work as a teacher.


engagement in online learning spaces

it’s been a long time since i was officially a student. okay, not a really long time, but long enough that i felt a big difference when i started this course. my first thought was “ugh, i’m not in a position of authority here. i don’t like this at all.” but then i realized how freeing it was to not be responsible for those friendly reminders of the course requirements and deadlines. and of course it’s been really useful to reconnect with that feeling of “i don’t have enough time to do everything for this course so i need to prioritize.”

which is kind of the key to engagement, isn’t it? students who prioritize the work they do for a course automatically appear to be more engaged than those who don’t. in the classroom, they’re the students who answer questions more readily, submit assignments on time, and serve as a continuous source of encouragement to course instructors simply because they show up (and by show up i don’t mean simply occupy a seat – i mean participate and engage). in an online course, showing up means posting, joining webinars, and responding to prompts. it means making the time to engage in what can often be an asynchronous conversation with other students taking the course, which is a really counterintuitive experience (at least for me – i hate waiting for responses).

and that’s something that has struck me this week, as i’ve thought about student engagement. so many (or maybe even all) students are natives of the face-to-face world when it comes to learning (even if it is increasingly likely that the digital literacy among students will be high), and taking our square-peg approach to classroom learning and trying to fit it into the round hole of online learning is such an overwhelming task!

for this topic, the internet explorers decided to focus on promoting student engagement in the first part of an online course, since that’s what we could all relate to as being particularly challenging. looking back on my engagement during the first topic, i remember frustration and a desire to do better. it’s there in my first post: we weren’t very good at getting things going or making decisions, and this hurt our productivity at the beginning. but we realized things weren’t working and made a real effort to get on a better track. those of us who made the time to be online regularly in the early part of the course immediately felt like we weren’t alone, and as more people came onboard, our group dynamic became friendly, productive, supportive, and all the right kinds of challenging.

our facilitators didn’t have it easy: schedules didn’t line up and internet connections were uncooperative, and it meant that our group’s initiation was bumpy. there were a number of early meetings that the facilitators couldn’t attend because schedules conflicted, and that meant that they weren’t able to give us the support we probably needed. we lost one group member early and another only recently because they simply couldn’t get over that huge initial threshold. we had to figure a lot of things out by trial and error, and while (as i said in my first post) i could kind of see this being a sort-of deliberate trick to push us to take responsibility, that’s not what was supposed to happen.

so how do student prioritization and teacher support relate in an online learning environment if we want to get better student engagement?

it’s actually really simple: students prioritize mandatory tasks, and teachers have all the freedom in the world to make engagement mandatory. so make engagement mandatory!

okay maybe not so simple.

i co-teach an online course that has mandatory participation in discussion forums, and participation can be really patchy. not that students don’t participate and then try to get credit anyway – that would never fly – but it’s clear that many of the students do the bare minimum and sometimes long after the discussion for that module has died down. i think part of the reason is that the course is pass/fail. i’m totally not a fan of pass/fail courses because it’s so easy to just think about the bare minimum. for me, the possibility of earning credit for not just passable performance, but excellent performance, makes all the difference in the world. when all i get is “yes, you passed” (which, to me, signals that i earned as little as 50%) it doesn’t motivate me, and i’m totally going to tend toward bare-minimum performance. that’s what i did the two times i was able to take a course pass/fail in undergrad and it sucked.

i don’t fault the students for taking a strategic, “what do i need to do to just pass?” approach. we’re all busy and we have a lot to juggle. i find myself struggling with mandatory tasks in this course, and feel that i should probably have participated more in the main ONL152 community, but i didn’t feel that i had the time.

here’s the thing about that, though: i have been active, engaged, enthusiastic. i’ve done so much participation stuff i barely recognize myself (i wasn’t much of a joiner as a student, and didn’t often embrace leadership roles). but it has all been in my PBL group.

this wonderful group of weirdos that makes me want to do a good job because i feel a sense of responsibility to them. because i know they feel that same sense of responsibility. because our conversations are lively and productive and we make decisions in a way that makes sense. because we have created a space where engagement is necessary and rewarding. we all prioritize the group work because we have recognized its importance for the course and cultivated a teamwork approach that gives us more than any of us could get alone.

so about that mandatory engagement thing. it’s more nuanced than just “you must complete the following things to pass the course.” it’s actually about creating evident value in engagement and showing students that they will gain real benefits from it. it’s about front-loading the mandatory engagement with reduced flexibility (yes! reduced flexibility in an online course!) in order to push the students into the course. it’s about getting them connected with a manageable number of peers and creating a sense of mutual responsibility and trust. that’s what the internet explorers have concluded for topic 6, and in true teamwork fashion, i stand by my team.

early structure matters, and it’s worth sacrificing flexibility for it. giving the students the proper initiation into the trickiness of online working will allow them to adapt the initial structure to suit their own needs, which reduces their need for support as the course progresses. we need to stop thinking of online students as “already literate” and realize that every time they join a new online course, they have to learn a new way of working, or at least be prepared to make significant changes to their established approach.

and in that sense maybe it’s not so different from classroom teaching; we’re not just teaching a subject – we’re inviting students into a way of thinking, a way of working, a way of solving problems that is adapted to our discipline and our context and is always dependent on the setting.

engagement in online learning spaces


it’s a pretty expansive idea. transparency, access, intellectual property (or not), sharing freely. we want openness because it offers greater opportunities for more people to engage with fewer barriers. it makes perfect sense. i think that for academics, however, openness is feels like a dangerous word because it implies giving up our ownership of our own material.

in the unforgiving world of publish or perish, where earning tenure is paramount and proving our worth is equated with our success in convincing journal editors that our work is worth publishing, holding on to what we have developed and making sure that everyone else knows it’s ours is pretty damn important. this goes for research, mostly, but it also goes for our teaching materials. universities are paying greater attention to pedagogical skills than ever before, and that means that academics need to showcase their teaching skills as well as their research prowess.

some academic teachers write textbooks to cement their place of authority. self-published books (especially of the e-variety) seem to be more and more frequent, probably because they are easier to publish yet can still be of very high quality, but critical minds will likely wonder at their credibility. with the need for increased skepticism when considering source material retrieved online (pseudoscience is a troublesome beneficiary of this, and the recent outbreak of measles in Canada as a result of the anti-vax idiots is a tragic example of grossly inappropriate scrutiny of source credibility) and increased focus on teaching students to think about the credibility of different types of sources, self-published works always rank lower and peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be at the top. the big academic publishers still hold tremendous authority, and rightly so. fraught as it may be with imperfections, the peer review and editorial systems used in academic publishing still present the greatest chance for a published work to truly be of high credibility and subject to proper scrutiny.

the issues plaguing the world of academic publishing are numerous and complex. moves to offering open access publication exist, but new journals that are 100% open access have awoken concerns about the quality of vetting: stories of fake papers being accepted for publication aren’t hard to find. but the peer review system in subscription-based journals has its challenges as well. the peer review system isn’t a silver bullet, but neither should it be eliminated as an important step in getting good work published.

of course, we may not have the same approach to our teaching material as we do to our research, if we do indeed work as researchers. teaching might not even be that important compared to our research. we may not have any concerns at all about making our teaching material available to anyone who wants it. but for those of us whose place in the academic world consists mostly of teaching activities, we might not have research publications to rely on, or we may be trying to work our way up to earning research time; in this case, our teaching material can be precious.

so openness becomes tricky. we keep our own teaching material and use it to document our teaching activities, to be sure, but if we’re interested in upping our h-index to prove that our work is impactful and of interest to other teachers, don’t we need to put a copyright on it? how do we show that our work has impact in the pedagogy of our field if other teachers don’t cite our work in a trackable way? this is as true of old-fashioned chalk-and-talk teaching as it is of modern, tech-driven approaches, and it’s worrisome.

but this desire to pursue reward and recognition for our teaching kind of clashes with a student-centred teaching philosophy, doesn’t it? if we believe the pedagogical idea that student learning is at the centre of teaching, then the teacher’s ownership of teaching material is less important than the possibility of other students benefitting from an excellent lesson. teachers should share, freely and widely, so that the collective wealth of pedagogical tools grows.

well, no. they shouldn’t just let anyone take anything at any time. i don’t buy the idea of complete communistic generosity here, just like i don’t buy the idea of complete protectiveness.

we need to aim for a middle ground.

a good teacher can’t run on intrinsic motivation alone, just like a good student doesn’t slog through a university degree “just for the experience” – they want the degree! as academic teachers, we need to publish our work so that we can track its impact and ensure that we build our teaching portfolio.

i believe that all academics should publish in all areas of their jobs, teaching and research alike. i see the peer review system as an opportunity for rigour, and a way of ensuring that what gets out there is the result of good work. we should work hard and earn recognition for our efforts. but we should also understand where ownership is important. something about the teaching culture of the academic world makes it acceptable to use teaching materials without attribution even though we would never dream of stealing the work of other researchers. it’s no wonder that some teachers are reluctant to share, because they have seen first hand when someone takes a lesson or activity and passes it off as their own.

we need better integrity when it comes to teaching materials if we want to promote openness in this highly competitive environment. if we make use of the creative commons when preparing teaching materials while at the same time using good citation practices when borrowing from published works, then we can build a system in which we promote free sharing while protecting our own creations. we pay it forward, as it were, and if we hold each other responsible for giving credit where credit is due, then perhaps we can find a happy middle ground.


digital me

i’m not so young that i’ve grown up immersed in the digital world – i spent a really good chunk of my undergrad reading books, not using google – but i’m still young enough that large parts of my life are intertwined with the online world. it’s easy for me to navigate digital spaces and i like to think i’m pretty good at solving problems when i encounter them in the virtual world. feeling like i’m somewhere in the middle means that i don’t really know what to think about this title, digital me, because what version are we even talking about?

we’re different online than we are in real life. at least, i think we are. the analogy that first came to my mind was to my teaching practice (but it relates also to any situation where i have to perform). i show my students the version of myself that i want them to see, and i’ve chosen this version because it best suits the context and helps me with my ethos. but in teaching it’s in the moment, it’s live, and i’m not always very polished. sure, i have a plan and i tend to manage to speak coherently, but i make mistakes and say confusing things and backpedal, and that’s okay because it’s live and therefore not recorded. and that’s where the analogy fails to connect to the digital me, because that me is on the internet forever once i share it, and so she is highly edited and, for lack of a better word, censored. i don’t mean that in some sort of conspiracy-to-hide-important-information way, but rather in the way that anyone who’s got even slightly perfectionistic tendencies will lean: content to be shared online is drafted, redrafted, scrapped, reorganized, and reformatted before it makes it out onto the internet. being someone who can be haunted by a typo in an email, i’m not exactly a shoot-from-the-hip netizen.

well, maybe that’s not entirely true. i’m pretty blunt and spontaneous on facebook. but then that’s a small sphere that’s closed to the public. i’ve maxed out every privacy setting available, and even have limited profile lists for certain types of facebook friends. i still see that space as a personal one, and so when my students try to add me as a friend i always refuse.

in the visitor–resident, personal–institutional spectrum [1], i think it makes a lot of sense that students tend to occupy opposite quadrants in their learning and personal activities. but i’m not a student, i’m a professional. sure, i embrace the idea of lifelong learning and believe that i will always try to pursue learning in tandem with work, but i don’t identify with being a student. so david white’s discussion isn’t really useful to me and my digital identity. well, maybe it’s a stretch to say it’s entirely useless, but (gasp!) i have to do a little thinking for myself to make it work.

so what then? i’d be interested to see where white would put something like linkedin or (as we’ve explored this week) a digital portfolio. it probably depends greatly on the person, and could span a really large range on both axes. we cultivate our online selves based on what aspects we want to share and make things available in different ways or to different extents to different circles. my linkedin profile is pretty open for others to explore but i don’t really spend time there, so as much as it’s part of my online residency, i’m not really interested in doing a lot of networking that way.

this blog is in a weird place too, but that’s probably because i’m not a fan of blogging. i did it, for a bit, when i was in undergrad. it was idiotic. i wrote narcissistic crap and overshared and it was all public, and yet the only people who were supposed to read it were people i already had relationships with. what can i say? i was a noob.

so many years later i’m back (wordpress feels a little classier than blogspot, i gotta say) and i don’t know how i feel about it. i mean, the context is much more valid and this is a good way to show my peers how i’m processing stuff in this course, but i’m not convinced that i’ll continue this part of my online life after this course is over. i hate the whole concept of “selfies all the time!” and without a reason to write, that’s what a blog feels like to me. maybe i’m old-fashioned in my idea of the kind of writing and publishing i want to be involved in, but blogging isn’t it.

so what is the digital me? ugh. awful question. it’s whatever i want it to be, really. that’s the best part about this online world: much as it can be scary to think that things you share can find their way into odd and unintended hands, you can at least find comfort in knowing that you can choose what goes out there and what stays tucked away.

unless you get hacked. then you’re screwed.

[1] White, D. Visitors and Residents: Credibility. [YouTube video.] Available: https://youtu.be/kO569eknM6U. Accessed 15 October 2015.

digital me

scheduling and decision making…

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:

  1. they jumped right to a solution without ever stopping to discuss the problem, or
  2. 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 [1]:

kolb inventory

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…

[1] 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.

scheduling and decision making…