Tuesday, March 21, 2017

To be Open or Closed in Online Learning… that is the question. Indeed.

Is Learning Better with an Audience? 

I have thought about this question, quite a bit over the last few years. The approach that I have taken to open learning, has always been relative to the age and needs of the students or the learning context. 

Reflecting on Learning in the Open

Created by J.Stewart-Mitchell via Bitmoji
First, let me begin by sharing my own experiences as a student and how it has transferred in my approach with open learning with students.
As a student, I have had mixed feelings about open learning. Some aspects I appreciate; others feel a little intimidating. I enjoy connecting via Twitter, the Google Plus community and reading the blogs of others and their reflections on their learning experience. Twitter and Google Plus are great spaces for quickly reaching out to share or ask for help. With the open nature of Twitter, asking for help is as easy as asking the whole Twittersphere for assistance. Or relatively, depending on the hashtag or your follower’s willingness to retweet your post. With Twitter it can be a bit like saying something in a crowded room, no one will hear you unless your message is repeated. Unless of course you have people in tuned to listening as your followers.  In the Google Plus closed community, such as in any of the CourosHildebrandt classes, if something is shared, you voice will not be drowned out by the noise, as the room is much smaller.
So which one is preferable? I love both. Honestly, one of the platforms that has truly ignited my own learning regarding what is current in Educational Technology, Growth Mindset, or Literacy has been Twitter. People often will say, I don’t get it, how does Twitter offer this? And I often respond that it’s all in the people you follow, and if you engage with the content or the ideas that are shared. Basically Twitter and Google Plus are fantastic spaces for connecting and sharing.

Now when you look at encouraging deeper reflecting, blogging is a better space for this. Blogging goes hand-in-hand with reflection. How often do we actually sit down and log our thoughts? As teachers we reflect on the learning of our students and their growth. But how often do we actually reflect on our own growth as a learner? The truth is, unless we are taking a class, we don’t take time for it. (Then again who can with the demands on teachers!?) That being said, do you need a blog to reflect? No. But as George Couros says, “Instead of simply dumping information into our brains, we have to take time to think about what we are learning and make meaningful connections.” In addition to this, when you record your insights and reflections are you potentially helping others in their growth? Maybe. But it doesn’t matter, the purpose of blogging is not just sharing with an audience, it’s about a space for deepening your own thoughts. Sometimes as I wait in anticipation of comments from others, I have actually had to remind myself of all the tenets of blogging. It’s about personal introspection and growth, not just audience.

What are the Intentions Behind the Platform? 

Created by J.Stewart-Mitchell via Bitmoji
Now when you look at the learning of our students, do all the same rules apply? Does openness increase authenticity of learning? It all depends on the intentionality for engaging and learning online. Is the intention to have students share their learning with the world, and take learning beyond walls of the classroom, or is it to get noticed or outside affirmation? I ask this honestly. But is learning more meaningful in an open or closed space? It really it all depends on the context. Context being the age of the students or the reason for the connecting.
Authentic learning is guaranteed neither in a closed forum or in an open platform. That being said, when students engage they have to feel like there is a purpose for the activity, and that it matters. By creating discussion forums whether it’s through Google Plus, Twitter, or blogs a new focus develops… audience. No longer is the teacher center stage, they all become active participants. And honestly, for many of our students going on stage when you have silently stood in the wings can be pretty terrifying. Engaging in a discussion forum gives everyone a voice. A space to share their thoughts and insights. When you start bringing in tools like Flipgrid, where voice is not encumbered by how well you can write, a new level of connecting can emerge – as natural as speaking. All of these connections may be made both in a closed – members only platform, or it can be opened up. Authenticity is not guaranteed if we open it to the online world. However, learning with the world watching, can add another aspect worth exploration.

Student Voice - Unfiltered. Better?

When I consider blogs like Kathy Cassidy’s Classroom blog or Pernille Ripp’s, Learning in the Fourth Dimension blog you can explore student work/reflections that are teacher selected and moderated. Blogs where the students are the stars and their voice is shared, but through their teacher. Which is appropriate, the learning is moderated (for safety), but there is obviously authentic learning happening. In both cases you can see evidence of how both teachers connect with others throughout the world using Skype, Twitter, email or blogging. But this makes sense, as it is relative to the age of the students. As the students get older, and develop a greater understanding of digital citizenship, and how to engage in the online world then teacher moderation can be reduced. Of course this all depends on recommendations/requirements of parents and school divisions. But if you look at blogs such as Paul Solarz’s grade 6 classroom blog, What’s Going On in Mr. Solarz’ Class?, one can see not only what they are learning, but greater depth with his students e-portfolios and reflections. Which is powerful. It’s not just the teacher’s voice that is heard – but the students. Perhaps this is what leads to greater authenticity… in being able to hear the student’s voice – unfiltered by the teacher (although for safety, most likely moderated by the teacher…).
In my own experience when I have a chance to read or listen to a student’s reflections of their growth and learning in an online, it’s so much more powerful than just that short parent-teacher-student conference that lasts 10 minutes. Mainly because the conversation is captured and can be saved for reflecting back on one’s growth. I know even for myself, using the same blog for the CourosHildebrandt class has allowed me to look back on my growth over the last 3 years. Furthermore, it has provided a good opportunity for me to share this with students when we discuss the benefits of blogging.  

Safeguards? Of course... That's What Digital Citizenship is About!

Created by J. Stewart-Mitchell via Bitmoji
When we look at opening learning and classrooms to the world there needs to be safeguards. Not just because administration demands it, but because we have to ensure the safety and well-being of our students. Just as we would have procedures and safeguards on a field-trip, going online is the same thing. Experienced bloggers like Cathy Cassidy have safe guards. She does not directly give her students’ full names or school. It is apparent that with her efforts to make learning visible, she ensures the safety of her students. As we move towards more teachers celebrating the learning of their classrooms online and increasing visibility, I think that we need to ensure that we do not lose sight of safety. Most administrators are very supportive of student and teacher blogging, provided that the teacher understands how to keep students safe online etc. Which may seem rather obvious, but I have seen blogs where the school location, place identifiers or student full names are provided online. When we look at open learning, such as through student blogging and flipped learning, most administrators are supportive, in many cases, the main question that comes to mind is the accessibility to shared devices to support the course. If a teacher is going to an online learning model, there cannot be the expectation that they would automatically get the school shared devices. Nor can it ever be assumed that students can bring them from home, regardless of the community where the school resides.  

There are really no easy answers to the question, whether or not learning is more authentic as you move into the open. It all comes down to teacher understanding, student age, context of learning and the intentions for making the learning visible. Once these questions are addressed, then the teacher can make that decision. How’s that for an ambiguous response to the question!

Check out this TedTalk, When Student Voice is Heard: Andrew VanderMeulen at TEDxYouth@WISS. Andrew VanderMuelen explains the importance of the future of learning for students when their voice is dominant. Worth a watch!

What are your experiences and insights? I would love to hear them!

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