Stories, not containers: What is a course?

We think of courses as containers; containers for the outcomes, content and assessments related to a topic. Students move through the course – from one concept to another – until they get to the assessment at the end, which signals the end of the course. The course is bound in time; it has a definite beginning and end and it requires us to map out the course structure long before we meet the participants. How then, can this structure recognise the unique characteristics of individuals? Courses as containers are formalised, and standardised and ultimately, far more about compliance and conformity than creativity, ingenuity, innovation, or even mastery. There may be some administrative benefits to thinking of courses in this way but there are few benefits that are pedagogical. In other words, the course as container metaphor doesn’t enhance learning in any way.

If we want a student-centred, inquiry-based course we must disregard the course as container and come up with another way to think about courses. Lately I’ve been wondering if the course could be structured as a user-generated story; an unscripted narrative that integrates participant experience with course concepts leading to unpredictable and delightful outcomes. Instead of thinking of the course as a container – closed and inflexible – what if it was a stage upon which the process of learning could be enacted in order to tell stories? What if the course was an open space that enabled personal learning to progress in directions that we cannot anticipate. The course framework could include some things that participants would need to tell their version of the story – provocations, an audience, collaborators, basic structure – while also allowing for them to bring in their own elements – experience, knowledge, beliefs, etc.

What if a course began like a great story; with an opening scene that grabbed your attention? What if we started with a provocative context that generated a “Whoa!” moment; a cascade of questions that threatened someone’s core beliefs. This opening scene could establish a learning context where every participant realises that their understanding and practices are going to be questioned. It becomes clear that this course will not have a neat and tidy resolution, and that this is going to require a confrontation with the messiness and uncertainty of the world. Participants know, from the beginning, that this course is not for the faint of heart.

After the opening scene the course begins to unfold, allowing each participant to take a different direction. The structure of the course not only acknowledges every participants’ unique context and history, but actually aims to embrace and use it. There is an unfolding sequence of action and reflection where each participant chooses which “storyline” to follow. One might watch the embedded video while another is caught up in the patient scenario. Other participants are drawn to the poems and art section where course concepts are explored with multimedia artifacts. Yet others choose to read the research paper or the book review. Depending on where they see “the evidence” residing, participants make choices about how they wish to explore the topic.

There is therefore both controlled and uncontrolled content where the (un)structure of the course enables participants to engage with different perspectives, right from the start. Content is negotiated by the participants within the context of the course and decisions made about what is important to include. This enables the course to be built – as it unfolds – around the critical examination of concepts, hierarchies and assumptions that exist at the centre.

As participants engage with the course concepts via different media, questions are triggered which lead to the development of research queries that aim to provide information that participants need in order to build their story. These resources then become a course “reading” list (it could include videos and art) generated by participants during the course. Course content is therefore created in the moment as participants write their own stories using personal experience, concepts from the course, group conversations and the additional resources generated by other participants. They aggregate resources from multiple sources, remix these in various ways, adapt and repurpose them to suit their own needs, and then share them. The content is therefore created as it is needed. It will also be different every time the course is enacted because different participants will take the narrative in different directions, leading to different outcomes.

The course also provides the time and space for participants to step back and reflect. To “put down the book” and step outside. We need a moment where, before we can move on with the story we must first come to terms with what we’ve just learned. There are some ideas that are too big to take in at once and we need to step away to think about what they mean for us. Sometimes – when the ideas are big enough and uncomfortable enough – we need to think about whether or not we even want to to continue with the story. We need courses that are cognisant of the need to “step back” and that give participants the space they need to work with difficult ideas.

While the course itself is bound with beginning and end points (we can’t have facilitators and participants forever enrolled), the interactions and community that develop during the course could continue when it ends. The course is designed to outgrow itself and to leave space for community engagement and response that extends beyond the boundaries set for each iteration of the course. Just like stories can stay with you long after you finish the last page, so the thinking and reflections generated in the course as story continue long after the final task is completed. In fact, completing the final task doesn’t signal the end of something; instead it highlights that this is the beginning of a change in how you think about the world.

At the begining of the course as story, it is the group who collectively decide what “success” looks like and how it will be assessed at the end. Perhaps they decide that a short book will be the final product, where each participant takes the lead in developing a collaboratively created chapter, where each chapter is a topic in the course. Maybe “success” for another cohort is a website where they describe their process, including reflections, drawings, photos, video diaries and audio recordings. Maybe someone in the group composed a song that they all perform and that gets published. Maybe “success” is an exhibition at a gallery. We must remember that there are few limitations to what should be attempted in the pursuit of sustained, meaningful learning. The total number of possible ways that “success” can be determined is much higher than performance on a test, or submission of an essay. Thinking of the course as an unscripted story without a predetermined outcome helps us get to the point where it’s easier to see what those other descriptions of success might look like.

The best stories aren’t the ones that take you down a predictable and narrowly focused path. The best stories open you up to the possibility that everything you thought about something is being questioned. The best stories don’t answer all the questions and aren’t neatly wrapped up at the end. The best stories are starting points that leave you asking, “What next?”. Shouldn’t our courses do the same?

My presentation at the 2014 SAAHE conference

Here is the presentation I plan on giving at the SAAHE conference tomorrow. It describes an open online course that I ran in collaboration with Physiopedia last year, and now presents some of the results obtained from student interviews.

Presentation on an open, online course

Last year I ran an open online course in Professional Ethics, in collaboration with Physiopedia. Earlier today, I presented the process of designing and implementing that course at a conference on Transforming Education through Technological Innovation, hosted by Stellenbosch University. I really enjoyed the morning and thank the event coordinators for inviting me to present.

Open, online course on Professional Ethics

Selection_001I’ve been wanting to run an open, online course for a while and have finally managed to put something together in collaboration with Physiopedia. I’m interested in exploring new conceptions of curriculum and what it means to teachers and learners when we do something different. How would learning change if the learners decided on the content they cover? If they had control over the direction and pacing of the course?

The idea is that students not only need to learn about principles of ethical practice, but also to develop what are being called 21st century skills. Things like being able “to find, evaluate, analyse and apply information” (Bates, 2012). These are skills that can be taught, or perhaps more accurately, facilitated. And the only way to do this is to actually use them and to see them being used by others.

In addition, how are we teaching them to manage with the overwhelming amount of information that’s available to them. There’s too much content and so they need to learn how to navigate through this by “connecting with themselves, by connecting with other people” (Downes, 2012). What would happen if we look at the course as a starting point for stimulating students’ thinking, rather than a place to memorise as much content as possible?

I’m going to be running the course over the next couple of months with my 3rd and 4th year students, and will research the outcomes when it’s finished. One of the things that I’m really excited about is the idea that my students will be interacting with qualified health professionals from around the world. We don’t have very many people from outside the university who have registered, but enough to make me think that when this pilot project is done, we’ll be able to try and run it on an even bigger scale next year.

I’d be interested to hear what you think about the course, so let me know in the comments.

CHEC short course: teaching and learning

Today was the first day of a short course looking at teaching and learning and is pretty innovative in that it is co-ordinated by, and open to, academics from several higher educational institutions in the Western Cape. It’s being organised by the Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC). The course runs for the next month, during which we attend a session a week, and includes an assignment component. In this case, the assignment is to develop and evaluate a teaching activity using principles from the course.

The content of the course is aimed at new lecturers or those with experience who’d like to explore new ideas in their teaching practices. I thought it’d be interesting to engage with people from other institutions and see what I could learn from them. The sessions are really short so there isn’t much time to cover a lot of ground. However, the interaction seemed pretty good today. Most of the notes below were thoughts I had that were inspired by what was said, and not really content from the session.

What do teachers and students do to create learning spaces?

Students’ learning behaviour is a response to the education system they’re a part of

Perceived relevance influences participation (it’s not necessarily about actual relevance)

Challenging boundaries can develop critical thinking

Definitions of learning are context dependent i.e. it’s hard to pin down a definition of what it means “to learn”. Remembering a fact is different to more efficiently performing a task, but both are “learning”

Bloom’s taxonomy implies that certain “types” of learning are more developed than others, but “Evaluation” can be done at a basic level, and “Remembering” can be complex

How do you enable self-expression as a means of developing creativity / engagement?

When we mediate teaching and learning experiences with technology, are we producing a fundamentally different thinking process? If we are, then “e-learning” isn’t just about using technology…then it really is something different that should stand alone

How does “what students do” impact on how they think? How can I make better use of our learning spaces to change students’ thinking?

How do you get students to prepare for class, engage during class, and follow up (reflect) after class, in order to reach specific learning objectives?

If you give homework, do you need to make sure that students do it? If the homework task is designed to develop thinking, and then you assess the students’ ability to think, doing the homework task stops being work for the sake of work. Completing the homework then has a real positive outcome in terms of facilitating deeper understanding, which increases the probability of the student being deemed “competent”, which makes them more likely to do the homework.

Connectivism and connective knowledge, 2009

I just registered for the Connectivism and connective knowledge (CCK09) course that’s going to start in September.  I first came across it when I did the Mozilla open education course earlier this year and have been keeping an eye on it in the meantime.  It’s a massively open online course that so far has 1000+ registered participants, and is hosted by George Siemens and Steven Downes.

From the 2008 course outline, the Connectivism and connective knowledge course is a “…twelve week course that will explore the concepts of connectivism and connective knowledge and explore their application as a framework for theories of teaching and learning. It will outline a connectivist understanding of educational systems of the future.”

Here’s the syllabus for the 2008 course, and the Moodle outline.  If you register for the CCK09 course, let me know so that we can keep in touch.

Mozilla Open Education course: seminar 6

I know that this is all out of sync but the audio for sessions 4 and 5 aren’t up yet and I haven’t had a chance to go through the slideshows yet.  Today’s session was about the actual practice of teaching, using “open” as a framework.  Here are my notes:

Session 6 – Open pedagogy

Focus on educators and the impact of “open” on them.

Jason Jones

Initially started using wikis for groupwork.

Noticed a few problems when teaching – no one takes notes in class, “no real content”, inattention.  Also, when taking notes, educators aren’t always sure what notes are being taken.  Notes can “go wrong” when other thoughts intrude or when students mis-hear.

Paper notes are hard to improve and are private and difficult to organise.

Wikis are public and solve some of the problems just mentioned.  Everyone collaborates and there is negotiation of content.

An unexpected result was noticing that under the old system of teaching the only way you would know if the students have the wrong information is when they fail a test.  With a public wiki, you realise more quickly that students may be on the wrong track.

Lessons learned along with way.  Merely pointing students towards the wiki doesn’t work.  Students don’t always understand technology.  They’re also not sure what to record when taking notes, so templates are useful.  Students can sometimes find it difficult to use other resources (one benefit of using wikis / being online).

Problem of using old assessment techniques with new approaches to teaching and learning.

Garin Fons

Using wikis to get faculty to put teaching materials online, as well as collaborating with dedicated classmates to build community (reflect on communities of practice).

With wikis, faculty get a chance to have materials edited and reviewed in a way they can’t do alone.

Participatory pedagogy – John Seely Brown and the social view of learning.  We can no longer look at the classroom in a cartesian system.  We participate, therefore we learn.

Melanie McBride

Students create blogs as emerging professionals, rather than personal blogs (about what’s happening in their industry).

Found that some students weren’t very keen on blogging.  Reasons included: “I don’t know who I am yet, or who I want to be (powerful statement)…and that some don’t like the idea of being told what to do.  Anonymity was also an issue.

Students did take ownership of their own emerging industry knowledge.

“Banking” model of education = passive recipients of education.

Concerned with progressive asessment models.  Using wiki as means of checking in on student learning.

Issues of social justice and equity.  Not every student has access to tech (in America…try Africa).  Educators must be aware of that.

Pre-defined roles fall away with open pedagogy – students take ownership of courses and rewrite / restructure them.  Allow this to happen.  This can make teachers nervous.  Dichotomy of losing control but giving freedom.  Be careful about too much freedom.

Teachers and control…depends on the teacher, if they’re willing to dive into the participatory learning environment.  Getting teachers involved in the process.  What does their classroom look like normally and what is their teaching style?  Are they willing to break out of that?  if not, it’s difficult to move forward with this approach.

Mozilla Open Education course: seminar 3

Open web tech

Again, I missed this seminar because of poor internet connectivity on the day and am catching up on the audio after the fact.  Here are my notes from the presentation given by Mozilla’s Chris Blizzard.

  1. Open as a concept
  2. Innovation and change = important building blocks
  3. Relevance and why open matters
  4. Repurposing key web technologies

“Open”: what does it mean?  First of all, the opposite of open is not necessarily “closed”…though useful terms, in this context they shouldn’t be seen as polarising.  In the context of the open web, the opposite of open may be thought of as opaque…you don’t understand how it works, can’t see inside it, don’t know how it came about.  Gives a sense of the visual.  Therefore, open could be thought of as “transparent”.

Not requiring permission is an important component of open because it relates to patents, licensing, etc.  Comparison of video codecs like h264 and ogg theora and the difference that open licensing makes with regards permission to use the code.

Side note: all content from this course is available under an open license for anyone to re-purpose for any use.

“Generative” – word that is used widely in academia.  Meaning that through your action you allow others to do something as well. It allows people other than the original creator of the work to change the work and use it for things that the creator didn’t think of, it facilitates the mulitiplication of efforts and exploration.

“Innovation” is over-used in many circles…a black box in which things are improved but where the process is invisible.  The most important characteristic of innovation is that it represents change (both good and bad change).  Intentional disruption = standing up to make a difference in a way that’s going to be uncomfortable…and people are often reluctant to change because it’s uncomfortable.  Setting things up to purposefully be uncomfortable and going up against various interests (possibly commercial or political) who would not benefit from that change.  Setting yourself up against the status quo.  In an open model where you’re trying to encourage change / innovation / disruption, you’re going to run up against issues.

Where does experimentation come from?  Assume that progress and innovation stem from experimentation and failure (learning from our mistakes), it’s important to understand this process as it leads to change.  The core group of contributors to large projects are not necessarily the ones doing the experimenting, it usually comes from the periphery.  How do you set yourself up to have “edges” in the community and be open in order to promote experimentation and innovation?  This disruption is difficult for business to commit to because it’s hard to determine future value in experimentation and innovation.

As messy and painful as it is, the open web has worked well.  Very few other inventions have disrupted communication so comprehensively before the web (maybe the printing press, telephone).  An instantaneous communication network that people are continually changing and re-purposing without having to ask permission from anyone is very important.  The nature of the web made this possible i.e. intentionally built on a model of open technology / software where anyone could make changes without permission.

What makes something open web technology?  Web browser is the gateway to the web and we spend a lot of time using it, therefore it should be comfortable and easy to use.  Can you see the page source to understand how it works?  Being able to look at somebody’s source is part of the transparency / open-ness of the web.  Source is delivered (HTML, Javascript) and compiled / executed locally.  Historical mistake where originally authors were writing simple documents where source didn’t matter as much.  Now, this presents as a learning opportunity where others can see what you’ve done and use it in other ways.  This doesn’t mean that you should copy and paste everything, rather figure out how it works and learn that way.

If you have access to the source you may be able to figure out the API (or the API is open), which means that you can then re-purpose the application.  Twitter is an example…even though it’s only a simple application (status updates), others have figured out how to use it in different, more complex ways because of it’s open API and a whole ecosystem has developed around it. 

Another example is how people have changed Google search by implementing code in the browser, even though Google hasn’t explicitly given that permission.  An example of people using the open-ness of the web to figure things out and make changes that have not explicitly been allowed by an open license.

Key peices of open web technology:

  • HTML = core of open web, describes document structure, content, continually improving and evolving
  • XML = more generalised data management (not as widely used), semantic meaning is important in the open web
  • CSS = controls presentation of content (unlike HTML), can imply visual structure, media context, also implies semantic meaning
  • Images = static visual medium that conveys expression (jpg, png are simple but allows everyone to use), adds context to the open web
  • Javascript = integration of all the other peices, makes the static web dynamic
  • Open video = transparent, generative, not closed implementation of web video (in contrast to Flash), using ogg theora (patent- and royalty-free video codec)

Mozilla Open Education course – Overview

We had our first session of the Mozilla Open Education Course earlier this evening and it was pretty interesting.  There were a few technical issues with sound but generally it was very well done.  Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

Here’s a few notes that I took during the session.  I know the video will be available later but I took notes anyway and listed the comments from the presenter as it was happening, so there may be errors.  If I’ve made any mistakes, please let me know.

Mark Surman (from the Mozilla foundation)
Spoke about why Mozilla is involved and what the foundation’s motivations are.

Why do the course?

Students are living and learning on the web.  Education is not working and the web is making this even clearer.

Educators need to teach like the web, using these building blocks:

  • (open) content
  • (open) tech
  • (open) pedagogy

This course is about using these building blocks…all 3 need to come together in order for open education to work.

Why do Mozilla and CC care?
To promote openness, participation and distributed decision-making as a core part of internet life.  Education is critical to this.

Also, an experiment to:

  • share skills
  • new ideas
  • more allies
  • …have fun

Frank Hecker (Mozilla Foundation)
Elaborated on previous presentation

  • Teach people about Mozilla
  • Create learning opportunities around Mozilla technology and practices
  • Bring new people into the Mozilla camp
  • Create a global community of Mozilla educators
  • Mozilla curriculum at Seneca college
  • Incorporate Mozilla-related topics into coursework
  • http://education.mozilla.org – repo for course materials created
  • People learn things best when participating directly in the communities around that project
  • education@lists.mozilla.org

Question: will we be able to make our own ff addon?  Yes

Ahrash Bissell (ccLearn)

Why is Creative Commons involved in learning?

It’s mission is to minimise the legal, technological and social barriers to sharing and reusing educational materials.

Focusses on ways to improve opportunities for and education:

  • Teach about OER
  • Solve problems (built the “discover” tool for OER)
  • Build and diversify community (education is traditionally subdivided into camps e.g. university, high school).  Open education transcends these boundaries. Boundaries useful but should be permeable.
  • Explore better pedagogical models (learning is not something that happens in a delimited way, ideally it should be enjoyed and embraced all the time.  Models haven’t penetrated, everything the same way for the last 50 years (deeply entrenched)
  • Empower teachers and learners (certain expectations of students / teachers, “this is what it means to teach/learn”.  Little power to engage as “scientists” in teaching / learning and make adjustments.  Open source development models – emphasisise feedback, creating a system that allows experimentation in an open, transparent, participatory way.

Embrace overarching principle for engaged padagogies, not new but has become inevitable.

Crucial considerations:

  • Constant, formative feedback (must want to be assessed)
  • Education for skills and capacities, not rote knowledge (the internet makes it obvious why this is the way to go, “knowledge” is already everywhere, thinking is more important.  “Skilled learners”.
  • Leverage human and material capital effectively (reaching into peer groups)
  • Consider the bulding blocks of a participatory learning system
  • Enjoy learning

Philip Schmidt (Peer 2 Peer University)
Provided an overview of the project / sessions

Background readings available on course wiki / 20 min. interviews

Draw up a blueprint for individual / group projects:

  • (open) technology platform
  • (open) licensing
  • (open) pedagogical approach

Idea – blueprint – prototype – project!
Good idea to feed into ongoing things, like:

  • Mozilla education portal
  • Firefox plugins
  • P2PU

Next steps:

  • Decide on groups
  • Start sketching
  • Ideas more important than detail
  • A picture
  • Enough detail to start building