Thank you!

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Dear all,

I’d like to thank you.

Each and every one of you.

Thank you course organisers, facilitators and guest lecturers. You’ve created this wonderful course, that at least for me, has been a very enriching experience. During the course I have not only learnt a lot of practical tricks (new on-line tools, new uses for tools I already knew like Twitter, ways of encouraging and supporting engagement in group discussions, and so on) but also have I come to deeper realisations, of a more personal nature if you want, about the importance of emotions in the learning process, the potential of good constructive feedback to steer those emotions, and the possibilities that open up when you consider the whole Internet as your playing field also for your teaching role.

Thank you PBL group colleagues. For the nice working environment. For the open-minded attitude. For the meaningful discussions. For the patience. For not giving up. If I had to decide what was the best of this course, I’d say the PBL  group discussions without doubt. Apart from the outcome of the discussions on the different scenarios – which are a learning outcome on their own – I believe I’ve learnt way more important things during our PBL activities. I’ve learnt about group dynamics, and how they are different when all the work happens on-line. I’ve learnt that a clear set of rules is even more important than in face to face interaction for the correct functioning of the group. I’ve also learnt that it takes time (a different amount of time depending on each person) to become confident and participate in the discussions, and that could be discouraging at the beginning, but once the group is established and everyone start feeling comfortable, the potential of the group work is impressive. Even with “random” groups as the ones in this course. Really, thank you guys! Nina, Liljana, Christa and Ove… you’re fantastic!

Last, but not least, thank you all who took some time to read through this blog. Your comments, your feedback, your discussions are what made this course interesting and kept me engaged despite all other work piling up on my desk. It was exciting to receive new comments, and it always made me curious to see what others had to say or contribute with to my thoughts. This kind of interaction was new to me, and I really enjoyed it!

I don’t really know what’s going to happen with this blog now. It’s been an interesting experience but I have many other things I want to do and time is just not enough! However, if you liked any of the ideas exposed in here and you want to keep in touch, if you are – like me – trying to build up a PLN because you think it’s good fun… you can always find me on my e-mail or Twitter.

It’s been a pleasure to meet you all, and I really hope our paths cross again in the future. Remember that you’re privileged if you have the opportunity to teach and influence others improving their lives, and don’t forget to have fun while doing so!

Yours sincerely,

#Fran

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Emotionally connected

My last post was an experiment on Collaborative Blogging: I read a few interesting blog posts from my colleagues in the ONL172 course, and I elaborated further on those aspects that I found most interesting. Then, I left a comment on their blogs encouraging them to continue with the discussion. Now, two weeks have past and I consider this experiment a success. At least one of my fellow students, Nina Haugland Andersen took up on the idea, and has written a collaborative blog post herself with the revealing title The feedback potential. While I was reading her post, I had a revelation: I had to keep the wheel rolling and develop the concept further… my new blog post had to be built on Nina’s post, there was no other way!

It was just then that I realised that, in the ONL course, I am not a teacher – as I usually am in “normal life” – but a student, and this collaborative blogging concept has hooked me into writing a new blog post… it has MOTIVATED me to be ENGAGED in the course activities.

This was, by the way, one of the points in Nina’s post. Being engaged in something, in my opinion, implies a certain degree of emotional connection with that very something. The more you connect, the more you feel part of it, the more you will care for it and try to do your best to succeed. Provoking these kinds of emotions is not the main objective of the teacher of course – that should actually be to teach – but it could be seen as a tool or a means for teaching. In the same way, negative emotions (emotional relationship conflict as pointed out by Nina and Urban)  will negatively affect the learning capabilities of the students or the group, and should be prevented by the teacher.

The good feedback I received from Nina had several implications, and all of them contributed to my engagement and motivation. First of all, it made me think that maybe I had actually had a good idea with the collaborative blogging experiment, and that all that time I devoted to think how to come up with something new for Topic 3 was not wasted. That’s always a good feeling!

Secondly, it motivated me to read her post, and the posts linked in her post, which in turn took me to the original article by Hjerto et al, and without almost realising, I had spent two hours reading about the topic.

Finally, it also made me realise that I should give even more, and more positive feedback to my students. After all, we are all very similar and we all like to be good at what we do, in a way because we are emotionally connected with it -whether we want to admit it or not!

Thanks Nina for believing in my Collaborative Blogging experiment… look what you did!

Collaborative blogging

It is a cold autumn evening in southern Sweden, most leaves have already fallen from the trees, and here I am trying to find a good idea for my reflective blog post on “Learning on Communities”. It is a bit of a strange feeling, because for the first two topics in the course I almost didn’t have to think about this, and it was already during our group discussions that I came up with what I wanted to write about.

Nevertheless, as I was looking for inspiration in the ONL course webpage, it occurred to me that if the topic for these two weeks was Collaborative Learning, I could as well just do that! I could read some blog posts from my fellow students, find interesting arguments and develop them further. Then, in order to close the loop, I will leave them a comment on their blog so they can participate on the discussion.

Let’s start!

Aliona Yarova in her interesting post “The Learning Potluck” draws a comparison between group and individual learning, and she summarises it as group learning = lots of risks and lots of fun and individual learning = no risks but no fun either. She also discusses some of the advantages and disadvantages of group learning activities and highlights the role of the instructor (or facilitator) in helping the group move forward.

In my opinion, individual learning has in fact some risks that are mitigated in group learning. In individual learning, the student can acquire knowledge that is not correct or biased, especially if it is individual learning in which you don’t have many opportunities to discuss with the teacher, like for example an on-line course in which you follow recorded lectures at your own pace. If the same recorded lectures were followed by a group discussion, the students could have a higher chance to detect incorrect or biased content and therefore, improve their learning.

When it comes to the “having fun” part, I believe it this strongly related to each one’s personality and character. While work group can be exciting and enjoyable for some people – I surely count myself among them – it can also be challenging and stressful for others. Some people find joy in digging deep into a certain subject, studying it on their own until they master it without being disturbed or being forced to share their learning process with someone else – which they may see as an unnecessary loss of time.

In “Face-to-face or online collaborative learning” Chaiwat Prapainainar reflects about his own experience with online collaborative learning during the ONL course, and how he feels he learns more, he can tackle larger and more complex problems and cope with tighter deadlines when working in a group.

While in principle I agree with these statements, I believe they are only applicable in well-established groups that have already developed a working method. In a learning environment, the role of the facilitator (also mentioned by Aliona) is crucial to help the group move forward. In working teams, there might not be a facilitator and it is then up to the members to agree on a set of rules and define a working methodology that makes it possible for the group to work in an effective way. Otherwise, there’s a strong risk that the group doesn’t work efficiently, members become frustrated, they loose track of the project or goes into side-paths. These problems may be even more important and also more difficult to approach in online learning environments compared to face-to-face.

The last post I want to discuss is Kay Oddone’s “The symphonic magic of the PLN“. The analogy that Kay proposes between a PLN (Personal Learning Network) and a symphonic orchestra is a really good one! In this analogy, knowledge is compared to the music produced by the orchestra, only possible if all instruments are playing together, and usually much better than the music played by the individual instruments alone. The learning process is associated with playing the instrument, a process driven by the learner that results in the creation of knowledge. Social software is like the instruments in the orchestra, i.e. the tools needed to create the music / knowledge. Finally, the learner corresponds to the conductor of the orchestra, directing all other musicians (members of the PLN) in the creation of knowledge, driven by his/her own goals.

Is this last association learner – conductor that I don’t really agree with. In an orchestra, the conductor has a certain degree of authority, experience and knowledge above the rest of the musicians. Moreover, the learning process for the conductor won’t be playing an instrument, but rather learning how to coordinate the musicians in the best possible way, how to communicate or interact with them so that they can reach their excellence while playing together. Therefore, I’d like to propose a new musical analogy in which PLN will be like an improvising jazz ensemble. The musicians are the members of the network, each of them being an experienced player on their instrument, combining their playing in order to create something bigger in a “single-level” hierarchy. The learning process is playing their instruments, and their ultimate goal (outcome) is to improve their playing skills (achieved by both playing their instruments alone and with the rest of the musicians) and gain knowledge about music theory (achieved by interacting with the other musicians) .

Well, this ended up being a much larger post than I anticipated! I hope you have enjoyed the reading, and please, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

 

 

 

Openness in teaching and learning in different disciplines

Over the past two weeks we have had quite interesting discussions within our PBL group in the Open Networked Learning course. The topic at hand was “Open learning – sharing and openness” so we reflected together over the different implications of being open, for good and bad. We realised that while openness was in general beneficial in a learning context – teaching being essentially an open exchange of information – in some disciplines or areas this openness should be restricted to a limited group. Inside this group, consisting of the teacher(s) and the learner(s), the communication should be open for a successful learning process. However, that information should not be spread out to the open domain. Sensitive topics, such as some areas of medicine, biology, or nuclear technology which are susceptible of being used in weapons or terror are some examples of this.

After these discussions, I tried to reflect about my own learning experiences: how open have those been? how open have I been? how did I benefit from that openness?

If I go back like 20 years (yes, I’m that old!) my primary and secondary schools were average open I would say. For being purely based on traditional physical attendance, we had some degree of openness and I remember taking part on “open days”, workshops where students from other schools were invited, language exchange programs with England or Ireland and so on. Nevertheless, when it came to teaching material, openness was mostly practised among fellow students: sharing class notes among us when one couldn’t or wouldn’t come to the lectures. We even had a schedule system at some point to even out the workload!

My first serious contact with the Internet happened when I started university: they asked me for a username and password for my student e-mail account, and they provided access to the computer centre at the School of Engineering. I soon realised that I could find quite a lot of the information I needed online, open for grabs. I also realised that some of that information was not completely correct, that some of it was utterly wrong,  some of it was intentionally misleading and that most of the information coming from “trusted sources” was protected and only accessible after paying subscription fees – although there were often ways to go around that protection if you wanted to devote enough time and effort. We could say that at that point in time (year 2000) I discovered OERs in their primitive less-structured form, but we didn’t have any such thing at our own university.

During my PhD in Sweden things were not much different. Most of the courses I attended as a PhD student were on-site, and while we used the Internet more and more as a source of information, the course was still not open in the way MOOCs are, and the course material was mostly copyrighted. I took a couple of courses that were organised in collaboration with other technical universities in Sweden, in which part of the teaching happened online through video tutorials and discussion forums, although always within a closed platform that only registered students had access to. I have really good memories of these courses and I think of them as a middle ground between fully open online courses  and traditional on-site teaching. They surely provided great networking opportunities outside our own university, gave us access to other teachers, different learning methods and tools, etc. Most importantly, in my case, these courses made me curious about the potential of online learning and they are part of the reason I am taking the ONL course.

Outside my formal engineering education,  I have two hobbies to which I have devoted a lot of time and even followed the official training path: music and hang gliding. Although they may seem very different at first sight, I must say now upon reflecting on it, that they share quite a lot in the way I have learnt them. Both when learning music and when learning to fly hang gliders, the official school provided the theoretical background and the basic technical skill set needed. But the real learning happened somewhere else, usually surrounded by fellow musicians / pilots, in the rehearsal room / hill, with those more experienced coaching the newbies, giving practical tips, explaining all the tricky theoretical stuff on the ground and often pointing to useful online resources for further self-study. In this respect, internet specialised forums, wiki pages and lately Facebook and Telegram groups have been extremely useful for both disciplines.

Since both music and hang gliding are extremely practical disciplines, there are seldom absolute truth statements, and the openness of online forums and wikis plays a very important role in the learning process since it allows the student to see arguments in favour / against a certain technique based mostly on experience. It also allows the student to understand different points of view, coming from people with different levels of skills and different instruments or equipment. Although they lack the more rigid structure of a course or a book, forum topics could be seen as book chapters, focusing on a particular subject, and wiki pages have also some form of structure. Nonetheless, this is not necessarily bad for the learning process since it forces you as a learner to actively look for “good” information, and assess the quality, validity and applicability of the information you find. Moreover, once you have found a trustworthy source of information – an online forum of experienced musicians, a community of free flyers, a technical wiki about how to maintain and tune pianos… – you can stick to it and follow it without needing to assess the quality every time. Facebook and Telegram groups have proven to be excellent to obtain fast feedback on very specific questions as well as for increasing the camaraderie and boosting the banter among fellows: what’s the best brand of guitar strings for playing solo? how can I clean my keyboard after spilling coffee on it? what’s the best weather forecast site for a certain area? will anybody be out flying tomorrow? Really… did Phil brake another guitar while transporting it in his bike?

I hope you have enjoyed this post. Since it was based on my own experience, I found it hard to add meaningful references, but you can always ask me if you want to know more! Please don’t hesitate to leave your comments below. Also, if you happen to be interested in music (mostly guitar and piano and world music style) and / or hang gliding and have suggestions about interesting learning sites please share them!

 

Topic 1 – Online participation and digital literacies in constrained environments

One of the most significant characteristics of the Internet and the Digital World is openness, i.e. the possibility to access almost everything from everywhere; to reach an audience far beyond one’s physical limits; to be able to consult libraries that are located thousands of kilometres away… if they even exist as a physical place! This openness, this almost unlimited access to information has an enormous potential when it comes to education and self-development of individuals and societies.

However this openness cannot be given for granted, and there are a number of places in which this is certainly not the case. My reflection – the first blogging assignment in my ONL172 journey – will focus on the interaction with the Internet in two places I have recently visited, and where the access to the World Wide Web is somewhat constrained: China and Cuba.

In principle, these two countries are significantly different from one another, socially, economically, geographically, culturally… but both of them have similarities when it comes to their interaction with the Internet:

  • the Internet has arrived later than in the Western countries
  • when it arrived, it stirred a revolution in society in many ways
  • not all the population have access to it
  • the government sees it as a threat and attempts to control it

There are also some interesting differences in the way the Internet is used in Cuba and China, which I will try to outline later in the post.

Starting with China, it is worth remembering that China is the most populated country in the world with 1.4 billion people, while at the same time being one of the fastest growing economies over the last 50 years. It is not surprising then that Chinese companies see in the Internet a golden market opportunity. China is one of the main global manufacturing hubs, and increasing access to the Internet in the country implies first an increase in the local demand for electronic devices and components – which are locally produced – as well as an opportunity to reach potential customers for the goods produced in China anywhere in the World. If that wasn’t enough, digital development can also help the Chinese economy shift from less productive activities, e.g. manufacturing what others have designed somewhere else, to more innovative and technologically advanced services, e.g. designing your own products and services, and implementing them. [WEF],[MCK]

As of 2016, a bit over 53 % of the population in China was connected to the Internet. That, given the total population of the People’s Republic, makes China the country with most connected citizens. However, the degree of digital literacy development differs quite much between urban and rural areas, and despite the efforts of both the Chinese central and local governments, and international organisms such as the United Nations, the so called “digital divide” is far from being solved. [G20]

Different degrees of economic development, together with less accessibility – especially in the rural mountain areas – and a lack of communication infrastructures are some of the reasons behind the “digital divide”. In addition, education policies have not always helped to mitigate these differences: e.g. in the 90’s a subject called “information technology” aimed to familiarise the young Chinese with computers was introduced only in Chinese urban primary schools. However, rural areas had to wait until 2001, when the Ministry of Education carried out an extensive educational reform. By 2015, 85% of Chinese schools have gained access to the Internet, 77% are equipped with multimedia enabled classrooms, and 37% have embedded digital content in their teaching activities. [G20], [UAN]

fig1
Number of internet users in China since 2004. Source: [G20]
fig2
Reasons for non-internet users in China. Source: [G20]
As in the rest of the World, the age at which the Chinese have their first contact with the Internet has decreased significantly in the last years. Chinese children have access to the Internet already when they are 3 – 4 year old, and they use it mostly for gaming, communicating and also learning. The Children’s Media Literacy Education Research Centre of the China National Youth Palace Association has proposed a framework to help Chinese children develop digital literacies, and in this way make the most of their online experience while avoiding the associated risks of being connected.

This framework aims to assess the development of digital literacy in 3 different dimensions:

  • Media access and usage: assess whether children are able to widely access popular media products, how much time they spend online, and what their preferred media contents are.
  • Self-development ability: assess how children use digital technology to improve their development in four areas: entertainment, communication, learning and expression.
  • Anti-risk ability: assess what their strategies to avoid online risks are. According to the parents, the most worrying of these risks are the –negative- effects on their studies, their propensity of damaging eyesight, exposure to inappropriate information and the possibility to make contact with strangers that could be harmful.

Through surveys and interviews conducted on more than 15 thousand children aged 3 to 14 who are internet users and their parents, and a number of deep interviews, researchers of the China National Youth Palace Association have identified a close relationship between children’s age and their media access and the use they make of digital resources.  The following Figure illustrates their findings.

fig3
Triple jumps in millenials’ growth. Source: [UNA]
Nevertheless, everything is not easy and clear when it comes to the Internet in China, and as mentioned before the Chinese government, although aware of the enormous potential of the Internet and its implications in the development of Chinese new market economy, sees the Internet as a threat to their hegemonic authority and control, especially over the access to information. In the attempt to control the Internet and to avoid the spread of ideas against the People’s Revolution, the Chinese authorities started the Golden Shield Project already in 1998. As a result of the surveillance, many human-right activists, lawyers and free journalists have been harassed, intimidated, fined and even arrested. [WK1], [WK2]

As a part of the Golden Shield Project, the Great Firewall of China, an Internet surveillance and censorship system was implemented. This system does not only block Internet traffic from those sites that are considered “harmful”, but also monitors online activity of nearly 700 million Chinese netizens. The Government also infiltrated the Internet with its own corps of “ushers of public opinion”: a group of online users pretending to be ordinary users – they were prohibited from acknowledging that they worked for the Government – whose mission was to steer online debate rather than extinguish it. They were paid half a yuan for every comment they posted, earning them the nick name “The fifty-cent Party”. [EOS]

According to Amnesty International Report 2016/2017, instead of opening up, the Chinese Government is reinforcing the surveillance and censorship system, and in November 2016 the National People’s Congress passed the Cyber Security Law, which with the purpose of protecting users’ data from hacking and theft, made it obligatory for all internet companies operating in China to censor content, store users’ data domestically and enforced a real-name registration system which runs against national and international obligations to safeguard the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. [AIR]

Among blocked sites are social services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Telegram or lately WhatsApp; blogging sites such as Tumblr, Blogspot and Blogger; search engines as Google, Duck Duck Go, Yahoo and various foreign versions of Baidu; foreign media sites including The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist Bloomberg, Reuters, Le Monde, Netflix, Youtube, Vimeo, many Wikipedia pages and Wikileaks; and the majority of sites offering pornography. The list is huge and ever changing, but many Chinese Internet users are not set back by these measurements and have found different ways to circumvent the Great Firewall. The use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) services as well as proxy servers outside mainland China is extended among those who want a more free-use of the Internet.

Needless to say that the Internet situation in China is far more complex than what I could express in this blog post, and that the readers are advised to read some of the references in order to get more comprehensive information. After these first two weeks participating in the ONL course, once I understood a bit more about digital literacies, I decided that my first reflective blog post should be inspired on my trip to China last summer. Based on both my personal experiences during that 3-week trip, the research I did prior to the trip in order to better understand the country I was visiting, and some information I have collected specifically for this post, I would like to conclude with some observations:

  • I regard the level of digital literacy in China as high, especially in the urban areas. The presence of smart phones, interactive digital screens at airports and stations, massive LED screens for advertising and so on is comparable, if not higher, than in Western countries such as the US, the UK or Sweden. However I didn’t visit the rural China, and from the information I have read, the “digital divide” is significantly more pronounced in China than in the Western countries.
  • On-line participation levels are also extremely high, especially among younger Chinese (below 35 – 40 years old). Whether I was travelling on the subway or the bus, walking along the street or sitting at a Café, I could see people chatting, video-chatting, playing games or reading online on their phones. The presence of smart phones, phablets and tablets was ubiquitous, but I saw quite fewer people working on their laptops.
  • The fact that the Chinese government exerts a strict control of the Internet is not completely detrimental for the development of digital literacies. In fact, knowing that everything you read/write can be monitored, censored or may have been “coloured” to suit the government’s taste, encourages you to find creative ways of expressing yourself. MEME’s, homophonic words (words that sound almost the same but mean completely different things), metaphors… are continuously being created in China in order to convey the information or express your feelings despite the Great Firewall. On top of that, the development of technical skills is also promoted by the censorship system, and internet users in China have learnt how to use services such as VPN and proxy connections to bypass the censorship.
  • On the other hand, not everyone is willing to invest time and energy in bypassing the strict surveillance/censorship system, which discourages people from using the Internet to its full potential (they won’t trust it) or they just submit to the Government version of the truth.

I hope you have found this post informative and interesting! The topic is complex and controversial, and I hope we can engage in some meaningful discussions in the comments. Please feel free to leave your comment below. I must say I believe in a completely open Internet in which each individual is responsible of his/her actions and is able to behave in a polite and respectful way. Therefore no form of moderation will be applied to the comments in this blog.

Before saying goodbye, I just realised that I had promised to talk about my experiences in Cuba as well!! I believe this post is sufficiently long as it is, and in the true-spirit of the Caribbean, I will leave Cuba for another time… no stress amigo!

References:

[AIR] – Amnesty International Report 2016/17, The state of the World’s Human Rights, Amnesty International, London, UK, 2017.

[EOS] – Age of Ambition. Chasing fortune, truth and faith in the new China, Evan Osnos, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers, New York, 2014.

[G20] – Bridging the Digital Divide: Measuring Digital Literacy, Digital Literacy in China, Liu Qigui, EMS Dialogues – Digital Economy, back to back workshop, 31 May 2017, http://www.emsdialogues.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Digital-Literacy-EMSD-Back-to-Back-31-May-2017.pdf, accessed the 15 October 2017.

[MCK] – China’s digital transformation, Jonathan Woetzel et. al., McKinsey global Institute, July 2014, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/chinas-digital-transformation, accessed 15 October 2017.

[UAN] – Digital Literacy and Groth of Children in Urban China in the New Media Age, Haibo Zhang, Children’s Media Literacy Education Research Centre, United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, https://milunesco.unaoc.org/wp-content/uploads/Final-version-Digital-Literacyand-Growth-of-Children-in-Urban-China-in-the-New-Media-Age.pdf, accessed the 15 October 2017.

[WEF] – World Economic Forum, Why China leads the world in digital media, Stephen Waddington, 8 September 2015, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/09/why-china-leads-the-world-in-digital-media/ , accessed the 15 October 2017.

[WK1] – Internet censorship in China. (2017, October 3), In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Internet_censorship_in_China&oldid=803568951, accessed the 15 October 2017.

[WK2] – Golden Shield Project. (2017, October 15), In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Golden_Shield_Project&oldid=805425059, accessed the 15 October 2017.