Monthly Archives: October 2011

Research is important, but exposure to authentic experiences in real-world contexts is critical for learning.

Learning What  (Who + When + Where + How + Why) + (with what Outcomes) =  overexposure…

As I have said before, I am in a graduate program studying adult education and distance education and my peer group is predominantly composed of professionals already working in a related field. After spending the first few semesters gaining theoretical background in which to ground my inquiries, I discovered a driving need to orient my understanding of these theories by participating in a variety of educational endeavors. What can I say; it sounded like a good idea at the time. WHAT WAS I THINKING?

This is what I expected.

Unfortunately, I grossly underestimated the complexity of such an undertaking – even with only a handful of such endeavors in which to participate – and I overestimated the ability of my brain to take it all in and spit out a tidy summary of the whole grand experience. I have been incubating, reflecting, and reevaluating over the past few weeks, but there is nothing tidy or little about the process thus far.

Where did I go wrong? Since, up until recently, I have been simultaneously learning and experiencing (for lack of a better term) similar content, I think I took the organic nature of my own learning experience and process of learning for granted. It is much easier to learn when you are living the learning, in other words. I consider this Lesson #1 (and a valuable little lesson it is ;-) ).

This is what I have so far...

So, instead of offering you the tidy little summary that I had originally hoped for way back then, what I have for you is a fairly organized review of my experiences and what I am still learning along the way. These reflections combine my own experience as a distant learner in formal higher education as well as participation in the MOOCs #CMC11 and #change11 and #THATCamp Pedagogy 2011.

On Learning Theory:

In class we’ve discussed the evolution of learning theories. The terms behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism ought to be very familiar to us. Plus we’ve hit on transformative learning theory and critical theory and we’ve debated whether andragogy should even be referred to as a theory. Therefore, we ought to have a great foundation from which to consider connectivism – a theory of cooperative networked learning proposed (I believe) by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I think the two are basically the fathers of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), but I don’t know that with certainty. I haven’t heard much about connectivism within the formal learning curriculum, and that is probably because connectivism has not been widely accepted as a learning theory (at least at this point). Mention any of these names in a MOOC (Siemens & Down are co-facilitating change11 with Dave Cormier) or THATCamp and you find immediate recognition, however. Could we really be witnessing the evolution of innovation or maybe the disruptive innovation of education, I wonder?

On Learner Characteristics:

Within formal learning, we are paying for an education that ends at a diploma (hopefully). There is an established curriculum and we are all basically exposed to similar content. Course size is capped, so our classes are reasonably sized and teams within the course even smaller. Since we are distant learners, we rely on a variety of technologies. Most of our learning is asynchronous, so we each approach the learning environment independently, even as we are all contributing to that learning environment – in a sense, learning together. So we rely heavily on the technologies and on each other, in addition to the presence of facilitating instructors.

A MOOC is open and free and therefore available to any interested learner with Internet access and a device. What a MOOCer gets out of the experience is really up to them. In a MOOC, it is all about making connections, but the details (which connections, with what frequency level, depth of investigation, etc.) are decided by each individual and on an ongoing basis. So while MOOCers also rely heavily on a variety of technologies, contributing and interaction are not a requirement. Some content is provided for each unit by the facilitators, but engaging with the material or fellow learners is entirely voluntary. In addition, MOOCs come in any size range, based on the number of interested learners. Over 100,000 learners expressed an interest in Stanford’s first introductory open online course on Artificial Intelligence. Imagine learning in a class that size!

THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) was a two-day “unconference” specifically looking at pedagogy in the digital humanities. Interested learners applied for the opportunity to participate and contributing within the community of learners is expected. THATCamp generally has between 75 and 100 participants and sessions range from just a few people to upwards of 40 (just my best guess). Technology is in the title and technology was in the forefront of all discussions, but we didn’t rely heavily on technology.  Had the power gone out Poughkeepsie, discussion would have continued (albeit without the really cool demonstrations and eventually without the ability to create notes for each session in Google Docs. ;-)


During a conference in March, I sat in on a session regarding our institutional LMS review. I chose this session because I thought that it would be cool to see what the options are and how a large research university with an equally large online contingent goes about such an involved decision-making process. As usual, I did not get quite what I expected. Sure, the session presenters had created a great presentation about their pilot studies complete with color graphics, but the session was dominated by the audience. I do not know whether they were members of the faculty, or instructional designers, or IT, or from some other area, but they were clearly focused on finding out exactly which features were going to be available in an as yet undecided LMS. This really communicated something to me. Whoever they were, they seemed frustrated and they had demands and they wanted them to be acknowledged. And I thought that I was frustrated with ANGEL as a student!

With the current buzz surrounding the release of Pearson’s OpenClass, the mainstream media for higher education seem to be reexamining the top five (mine, not necessarily theirs) LMS issues – there is considerable debate on questions like cost, transparency, security, accessibility, and features. In that entire room full of interested people associated with higher education, however, only one of these five areas prevailed as a priority…food for thought. Distant learners (and apparently faculty) depend heavily on the LMS. It’s our world – our main connection and collection.  When it doesn’t have what we need, there are other tools; but then our world becomes just a little more spread out and complex, which has its own comparison of positives and negatives.

On the other hand, most of the educators and students from THATCamp are involved in traditional residential programs. For them, the LMS is a tool; probably one of many. I got two surprises at THATCamp directly concerning CMS. The first was from an undergraduate student attending Vassar who said she found that the online discussions conducted in the LMS (in this case, Moodle) used by a few of her instructors actually increase identity with the group, improve feelings of community, and result in deeper discussions on a topic – all positive indicators for learning! The second occurred in a session on teaching/technology tools for facilitating collaboration. Among a large group of educators, not one of them is using their institution’s LMS as a tool for collaboration. They are using the Google suite of applications. They are using a variety of blog applications. They are using  social networking. They are not using LMS, at least not when it comes to collaboration.

On PLEs:

I think I’ve already said too much. Next time…

It’s tough to counter the disparity argument when constantly reminded that you’re different…

A synonym for disparate is distant; how apropos. I’m a graduate student at State U where students compete fiercely for limited resources, though distant learners rarely seem to get the opportunity to even enter the ring. Maybe that’s unfair. Let me rephrase that. I’m a little fish in a big pond. Worse yet, I’m a little fish in the puddle left over from the last flooding – physically and psychologically separated from the pond ecosystem. For some reason, I feel better about saying that statement – like maybe it presents State U in a more favorable light, because I do love State U; but worse about the existence of the truth behind the statement – that it is ok for me to call myself a State U fish as long as I understand that I can never actually live in the pond and be part of that ecosystem – an ecosystem teeming with life, while the only element we share is water. Learning at the back door, as I suppose we are doing, comes with an unspoken set of rules and those rules clearly communicate our relegated positions. In choosing to be a distant learner, apparently I accept the existence of these unspoken rules. In my frustration, I can’t help but ask if this picture matches the vision that Charles Wedemeyer had about accessibility in education.

Want to participate in a graduate student organization as a distant learner? Want to become a GA, TA or RA as a distant learner? Want access to visitor lectures, college meetings, extra-curricular activities as a distant learner? It is in the absence of access to these and other opportunities in which naysayers ground their disparity argument to begin with! The rational conclusion, then, is that universities with distance education programs are perpetuating the very disparity which they claim to be working so fervently to overcome.

So, have I been wrong this whole time? IS distance education in higher education really for learners who just want a degree and nothing more? Whenever I let myself believe that this is not the case, I get another e-mail about the available opportunities on campus – opportunities that are not available to me as a distant learner. Why? Given the tools available today, there really are no excuses for anything less than parity – not just pertaining to access – but among opportunities and the availability of those opportunities to each and every interested student.


Like every other higher education institution, mine requires formally assessing the quality of student contributions via assignment of a grade. I had a little chuckle when I started my graduate program and realized that the point total for most courses is 100 in comparison to around 1,000 points for undergraduate classes. Are graduate students -90% extrinsically motivated to meet assignment requirements and instructor expectations? Does assigning a 4.7 send a significantly different message to the learner than a 94? The apparent logic behind this sorta cracks me up. I’m afraid to say that too loudly; however, for fear that a zillion PDF research articles supporting the practice will show up in my inbox. Disclaimer: I have not done a lit search on outcomes from varying assessment point levels; though if anyone out there has, I am interested in your findings.

THATCamp Pedagogy 2011 & Vassar College: On a Personal Note

Vassar College

It was a busy three or four days between THATCamp Pedagogy 2011 at Vassar College, homework, work, life – probably just referred to as “the usual” when people ask how it’s going. I took Thursday – my birthday – off from work in an attempt to reduce my over-sized to-do list and it was a productive day overall. Friday, on the other hand, saw a steep decline that began with a lengthy online dialog with a TA over grading errors and ended with a speeding ticket on a New Jersey highway. Some days just work that way…

I had a terrible headache by the time Sunday morning rolled around; likely the result of anxiety and sleep deprivation. I promised myself that I would leave the hotel an hour early that morning so I could walk the gorgeous Vassar campus with my new camera. As I probably should have expected, however, time dwindled. Note to self: if you book a suite with a Jacuzzi in a picturesque locale, plan to leave the textbooks behind – at least the majority of them. The Jacuzzi remained dry and I never even made it out onto the hotel patio to view the passing waterfalls. Epic fail on the R & R front :-\

On a positive note, the Sunday morning weather was perfection and I did take the time to circle the main quad, though I ended up at our morning briefing 20 minutes late. oops! So, a half hour and a few dozen pictures later and my calm had been miraculously restored. I am loving my new Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX100V with Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 30x Optical Zoom Lens and Full HD 1080 Video from Amazon! Put a camera in my hands and the rest of the world just melts away! It’s amazing how that lens can immediately adjust my focus. ;-) It’s not necessarily that I am a great photographer, but becoming one with the camera is like a system reboot for me.

Being a returning adult student probably makes life more challenging. There is always something or someone that requires your immediate attention with probably a line of other somethings directly behind! My advice is to stop and take some time for yourself; even if the world seems like it is spinning out of control. Immerse yourself in something that you love – something that demands 100% of you. The investment of even the briefest encounter – allowing yourself to go into full-on creativity mode – will be time well spent when you return to the task at hand refreshed and filled with renewed enthusiasm.

I guess I have learned something from #CMC11 after all!

Post THATCamp Pedagogy 2011

First, much gratitude to Matt S. and everyone with the power (you know who you are ;-) ) at Vassar and THATCamp for hosting Pedagogy 2011. Second, my thanks to whoever reviewed applications and stamped me a yes, even though I am not a faculty member serving the traditional higher education student population. Third, thank you to all fellow campers for graciously including me and accepting my differentness. Fourth, my apologies to anyone who actually reads this; I’m certain that it would be better written if I wasn’t fighting exhaustion and cognitive overload. Speaking of that… to those of you who think that I am a crazy multi-tasker – I ain’t got nothin’ on campers. They are simultaneously writing session notes, hacking resources, composing a group bibliography, tweeting back-channel, and participating in a live and lively discussion. WoW. I am totally blown away. Right now, my poor little brain is like Rocky Balboa after the fight – maybe I coulda been a contender…  For now, there are no art museum steps in my plan for the remainder of the day ;-)

I’m gonna pull a Scarlett O’Hara and I’ll think about that tomorrow!

THATCamp Pedagogy Eve

Several months ago, I applied for the opportunity to participate in #THATCamp Pedagogy at Vassar College. THAT stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp and the weekend is an opportunity for open collaboration and information sharing with people looking for new and better ways to use technology in a variety of teaching and learning experiences. I was pretty excited when I received notification of my acceptance. Now that the time is actually here, I’m very excited and a little nervous.

So, to set the tone, I am making a list of hopes for both myself and for the experience. I’m not going to call them goals because I am already about two breaths shy of a total freak-out and I don’t need to add any extra pressure…hahaha.

1. I hope that I am a good community member – an active participant in a cooperative, if not collaborative, environment.

2. I hope that I add value to the experience – that what I contribute is found to be useful in some way to my fellow campers.

3. I hope that I let myself have fun.

4. I hope that the experience rejuvenates and refocuses and refines my own ideas and perspectives and goals.

5. From our first messages, I am already confident that many other campers believe in a learner-centered approach. I hope that I meet a few of them. It would be really great to get to know them :-)

Tomorrow is the big day!

Blogging as a Tool for Education – Please Use it Wisely

Learning in most of the online courses that I have taken relies primarily, but not exclusively, on the constructivist approach and the threaded discussion element built into the LMS/CMS. In my experience, this works. How well depends on factors like organization, learner participation, topic/question presented, teacher presence, etc. So we’ve been experimenting in a Google site recently for one of my distance education courses. In this particular case, we seem to have taken our threaded discussions on the road and started to call it a web log. What is a blog and what is blogging? Are we blogging? If we are not blogging, then what are we doing and why are we doing it? Why blogging is a valuable personal development tool, in my opinion and in my experience.

Let’s get started :-)

So, what is a blog and what is blogging? Open your browser, type in either question, and you will get in excess of 163 million items returned. I think it’s probably safe to say – from a broad perspective – that a blog is whatever the blogger wants it to be, within the limits of the law. It can be a personal journal. It can have a more narrow focus on a topic, a place, a problem. The point is that it is generally the act of one individual (with perhaps a guest here or there). A blog is also a public personal space; it’s open to the public, but likely designed and controlled by the person. If a reader finds the blogger or topic to be particularly relevant to them, they can choose to subscribe. If a particular post moves the reader in some way, they may be motivated to share a comment. In some cases, an authentic asynchronous discussion takes place, but I would not venture a guess as to how often. I’m fairly certain that it is not the majority, however. Is a blog the best tool when the goal is asynchronous discussion, though?

In my class, are we blogging? Well, our use definitely does not fit my prior description. Instead, we have more than two dozen graduate students using a single Google site for one course. The site is private, with the exception of students and instructors, and I can’t consider it a personal space, though perhaps others can. The ability to edit and customize the site may rest with the site users, but we – as students – do not have permission to make any changes. The site is a bucket of sorts. Students go to the site, dump in their contribution, and depart. Are they writing because they want to; because they have some burning desire to share something about themselves or something they consider important, or because it is a requirement, or both? Nothing like returning to the old extrinsic/intrinsic motivation debate in education, eh? Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that a blog cannot be a useful tool in education or that a blog cannot be a discussion – that it cannot elicit dialog. It certainly can. In my humble opinion, however, we are not blogging in this class.

So, if we are not blogging, then what are we doing and why are we doing it? This is an excellent question to which I do not and cannot have an explanation. Speculation on my part may even be unwelcome, if not unwise. As students studying distance education by way of distance education, the process is part of the learning. Certainly, we are reminded frequently that distance education is not technology and it is not online education. That is definitely true. Another frequent lesson is not to teach to the technology, but to assess the appropriate tool to support the instructional goals of the teaching and learning experience. Yes, I have paid attention. Then why are we all here – the present experts and the future innovators – and not using the most appropriate tool for our teaching and learning experience?! Perhaps the answer rests in the instructional goals. Are we all on the receiving end of a valuable lesson in inappropriate tool use?! Perhaps the goal is for us to learn our way around Google Sites and reevaluation of the lesson objectives is in order. Perhaps the lesson is in trying to understand the challenge of integrating technology into education when technology is the hare and education is the turtle. Maybe the idea to incorporate Google Sites is just new and will continue to be redefined and refined.

In my opinion and in my experience, blogging is a valuable personal development tool. I have not been blogging for very long. It took me a year to work up the nerve, but I had support and encouragement and eventually I took the leap. In just a short time, blogging has changed the way I write, and to some extent, the way I interact with peers in my learning environment. Let me explain. I almost did not pursue the graduate program that I hope to complete next year. It’s not that it wasn’t of interest to me. It’s because the program is designed for professionals already working in the field. You guessed it; I am not one of those professionals. Had we all been sitting in a classroom that first semester, I would have been the silent student with a fixed stare like a deer in the headlights. To quote Wayne’s World, I didn’t feel worthy. I didn’t feel like I had valuable contributions to make. It’s not that I didn’t try, but I was in awe of the diverse experiences of my professional peers. Writing a blog that is open to public view; using it as a means of communication with other #MOOCers; interacting with people who have similar interests and learners at all levels; and receiving positive feedback in return has given me a measure of confidence that I did not have before. Not only that, but being forced to articulate thoughts and dreams and ideas in a way that others will hopefully understand, when before they were all locked up in a jumble, really introduces tremendous insight into the personal development process.

This transformation translates to my learning experience. Want to know how I know? When meeting a few peers in Skype, someone said that my posts on our “blog” are different and others agreed. This made me really stop and consider why. While other students were uncertain about expectations and focused on whether or not they were meeting requirements for content with their contributions (as established and measured by the instructors), I was more focused on sharing something that I considered valuable – something that I hoped might transcend our learning experience in the course. I was writing for me and sending a little part of me out into the world. Writing for public consumption is different and it’s very different than what we are doing in class on Google Sites. So, my advice to you and to anyone else out there reading this is to start a blog of your own and see what happens. I highly recommend it :-)