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Having been part of designing a MOOC and a learner on several, this is my first experience of acting in an online support role on one.

Four weeks in and I am having to give myself the same advice I hand out to participants ‘Don’t try to do it all’ (or ‘Keep calm in the face of abundance‘ as it is put in ocTEL.) There are (gratifyingly!) so many forum posts, blog posts and Tweets, it’s tempting to try to keep up with everything, and I’m sure participants feel much the same.

I like being able to use a variety of tools to engage with the material and interact with other ocTEL-ers, but when I was reviewing the material initially, I wondered how participants would be able to follow all the different communication streams that would be created. Fortunately, the Course Reader has made easy work of this, and thanks to some clever tech-enabled coordination being the scenes (Thanks, Martin), Tutors and Support Tutors can make sure we keep up with posts and comments as a team.

This is our Study Week currently and I’m looking forward to the remainder of the course and hopefully a continuation of the what we gain through ocTEL (resources found, associations made) into the future.

ocTEL 2014: http://octel.alt.ac.uk/2014/

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I’ve recently completed a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) from Oxford Brookes University called TOOC (Teaching Online Open Course.) Students were taking TOOC for credit or as a ‘free’ course (I was in the latter group.)

It’s not my first MOOC or even the first one I have completed; I’ve lost count of the number of online courses of various types I have taken over the years.

For some this may not qualify as a MOOC as the numbers are kept deliberately modest (for a MOOC) but it still had a relatively large cohort when we consider supported online courses in general.

What stood out was that it had a very high level (time and quality) of engagement of participating staff (teachers and teaching assistants) and this, for me, proved to be the most important part of the course.

The high level of engagement of staff was obviously encouraging the same of many students (yes, a fraction of the cohort were seen to be present but not everyone is going to post to forums on any course, just as few students ask questions in lectures.) In fact, the importance of building and maintaining presence was something that was introduced early on and I know many of us were seeing a practical demonstration of this and its effects.

This isn’t to disparage the quality of the resources but I doubt they alone would have had me engage with the topics each week and keep going to the end, and I doubt if they would have made me think so deeply.

I would urge anyone to take part in TOOC when it runs again to be a part of such a course, to take away a very positive experience of online learning and meet many wonderful people into the bargain.

I actually miss turning up online each week.

I was attracted to this conference both for the content which sounded intriguing but also to experience a wholly on-line conference.

The presentations and workshops were spread what at first seemed very thinly across the time available. But once I had attended a couple of sessions I began to really appreciated the breaks: it allowed me to keep up with my other responsibilities for the day, catch my breath and gather my thoughts. Each session was very intense with the oral presentation, slides, the synchronous and asynchronous panes to follow. It was a real challenge to take it all in and keep up; how the presenters managed, I do not know. The use of facilitators seemed to be an excellent idea and did at least aid the speaker in the balancing act of giving their presentation with following the ‘conversation’ going on amongst the audience sufficiently well to be able to comment and answer questions.

I couldn’t choose a highlight as I enjoyed all the sessions I attended both for the presented material and the interaction with other attendees. All were thought provoking.

I have attended a number of individual on-line sessions before this conference, many of them using Elluminate (the same tool used here), and though I could never say that I would like virtual meetings to replace all face to face events, I see real benefits. Short meetings are simply hard to justify the time spent in travelling, let alone the expense, and attending remotely may enable some to attend and still fulfil other commitments on the same day. Virtual conferences may enable some to attend events they would not otherwise be able to afford. Who wouldn’t support something that enables conferences and workshops to continue in lean times and possibly attract a greater range of attendees.

But I wonder also if there isn’t something extra to be gained from on-line meetings. It’s often said one of the most important aspects (or at least most often achieved) of face to face meetings is networking. I don’t know if it just the virtual meetings that I have attended, but I notice a lot more interaction, and between many more people, than in face to face events. Of course, what the quality of this interaction is, only time will tell. It would also be interesting to know how presenters feel about the kind of session where the audience can be ‘talking’ even more than they are.

My Tweets on the event

This is an annual event organised by the Centre for new and aspiring lecturers from all the physical sciences. Attendees this year had various levels of previous experience and came from a range of HEIs across the UK.

As well as being there to tell attendees more about the Centre and what we could do for them, I gave a very short presentation on web 2.0 tools and some simple examples of how they might be used in higher education, for themselves and for their students.

Having covered the same material last year I was interested to find that this year’s attendees had a significantly greater awareness of social software and could name specific examples of tools that were available; some were using them at least for their own development or collaboration between colleagues.

For those still finding their way around, the Centre offers examples of RSS feeds from the Centre’s website to which visitors can subscribe, the Centre’s Twitter feed and an account on Delicious.

The talk itself (including an image located through the CC search on Flickr) was posted on SlideShare and a list of all the references from the talk were posted to a list on Diigo.

Darren Mundy (Hull) gave us an introduction and his ideas of what differentiates web 2.0 from what has gone before, reminding us that Tim Berners-Lee always saw the web as a place to share but that perhaps this aspect is just greatly enhanced in a web 2.0 world. Observing that students may now possess the greater ability when it comes to technology in the classroom, what does that do to the position of the lecturer, how should they react? If students use the social web how can this be harnessed for teaching and learning?

Mark van Harmelen (Manchester) suggested that what defines web 2.0 is its emphasis on creating and sharing content. Nevertheless, the vast majority of web users would be passive with only a small percentage creating content or actively contributing towards it. He went on to talk about the fusing of the social and technical spheres within web 2.0 where the two could no longer be divided. Web 2.0 gives opportunities to work collaboratively and become more involved in their learning: ‘felt involved in a course for the first time’ was a telling student quote. A response to an audience question was that many web 2.0 tools were increasingly accessible to all practitioners, needing little or no technical expertise.

Science specific examples of web 2.0 use in higher education were provided by presentations from Nick Greeves of Liverpool and Clare Sansom of Birbeck.

Robert Consoli spoke about his HullUniLecturer project on YouTube. Of particular note was the institutional reaction to liability which acts as a cautionary tale for anyone contemplating similar work.

Steve Wheeler (Plymouth) challenged us with the idea that education needed to be transformed, examining the structure of post industrial revolution education and its need to fit children to their future in the world of work. Students today would not be entering the same world, yet the structure of education largely has not changed. The contrast was made between taxonomies and folksonomies, the blog and the wiki. Though students would use wikis within the classroom there was reluctance to use them outside; take-up required scaffolding and a critical mass of, but not too many, participants (lest cliques form).

Mark van Harmelen returned to give an overview of tips for using a range of web 2.0 tools including Delicious, GoogleDocs, GoogleReader, MediaWiki, Flickr, Skype and DimDim.

Darren Mundy returned to talk about the Wild Project, a initiative to network large groups through mobile technology.

Tweets associated with the event: http://search.twitter.com./search?q=heapsc

Event webpage (with the presentations that speakers have permitted the Centre to host): http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/physsci/events/detail/2009/making_web2_work_for_you

This event was organised partly based on the success of a previous event on the use of technology in education. Yes, you see those comments you leave on feedback forms really do count!

In the Choice and Change in OER workshop we looked at our own motivations to use Open Educational Resources and were then  taken through a process of working with ‘patterns’ looking at how that might be used in conjunction with the reuse of an OER. ‘Blog Innovation’ showcased a couple of projects that had used blogs and wikis with undergraduates and revealed the usual suspects of enablers (time, cost, support, embedding, access) and inhibitors (isolation, time, firewalls, lack of training).

In the Pedagogic Innovation session there were examples of the use of QR codes from Andy Ramsden (for instance in labeling artifacts with further information) and a contrast of ‘visitors’ and ‘residents’ experience of the web and web 2.0 tools from David White. Helen Whitehead expanded on the ‘Beyond 9 to 5′ community site and Brock Craft explained how sketching had been used to try to elucidate practitioners’ course design processes.

In the Learning Technology session Joss Winn talked about the use of BuddyPress to set up a series of institutional blogs and its versatility. Adam Blackwood illustrated the potential ability of a mobile phone to replace a range of gadgets in the classroom.

The keynote came from Martin Bean, giving us his vision for the OU of which he is soon to become VC. We have all been invited to join Social Learn (www.open.ac.uk/sociallearn), a tool that hopes to bring together social networking and education.

The afternoon session on Redesigning Assessment included Sue Folley’s look at the use of rubrics to make thing easier for both teacher and self assessment, and the use of digital story telling as a method of assessment from Geraldine Jones.

A great opening to the first day with a keynote from Michael Wesch, full of ideas and challenges. He began with the idea of media being more than a tool but something that can actually mediate our relationships (making me wonder if therefore we choose our media with sufficient care). His history of insignificance looked at the possible increasing loss of the sense of self and how this might be manifesting itself through the quest to be broadcast. Wesch suggested an interesting alternative to the term group, using ‘flock’ to better describe the coming together of numbers of people at points when they were traveling in the same direction, followed by their dispersal when their directions diverged. We were directed to the videos ‘A Vision of Students Today’ and ‘An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube’ for further information.

Aaron Porter had several good ideas about how we might use technology to enhance the student experience. He asked if any university of offering students a tracking system for their work (rather like on online order or helpdesk problem), whereby they might see when feedback is offered and those offering it could see that it has been accessed. When students give us feedback are we seen to be responding to it? Since students are known to use social networking tools might  same be used to help students feel part of the academic community? I like the idea of easing the inevitable tensions of approaching group work by allowing students to draw up their own rules of engagement.

Richard Noss talked about several interesting TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) projects including Ensemble (concerned with semantic technologies); InterLife (using virtual worlds to help with transition skills) and Learning Design Support (to help teachers exploit the potential of TEL).

The Semantic Technologies in Education session had us all thinking, not least about what were the problems it could actually solve or was it simply ‘a good idea’ and when realised we would find out what it could do.

The OER Matters session speculated a lot of possible opinions about OER that I have already met through the course of my work. The question ‘Are free resources really free?’ is an important one along with the worry that the apparent economic driver may become the main focus. Though we may all agree that ‘Open Education’ and ‘Educational Resources’ are good ideas, are we really positive about OER and it’s implications?

Tom Stafford of the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield gave a presentation entitled ‘The Learning Brain’ as part of the Cafe Scientifique, York programme.

We started with challenges to the dominant metaphor of the brain as a machine; instead studies have shown it is capable of change and adaptation. Examples of the enlargement of the hypo-campus of London taxi drivers (who have done ‘the knowledge’) and the motor cortex of musicians illustrate it’s dynamic nature.

Although it’s attractive for those who study the brain to want to attribute certain functions to fixed areas of the brain in all subjects, those who sustain brain damage early in life can still become fully functioning because the brain can relocate functions to parts of the brain that are undamaged.

Probably we have also experienced the ‘curse of knowledge’: when you understand something, you can never truly take yourself back to the mental state when when you did not, as learning makes itself invisible.

Although the study of neural networks in the ’80s gave some a false hope that we might be able to build an artificial brain, studies of that technology taught us something important: that learning systems are autonomous. Feeding a cat because he is complaining will result in the cat learning that complaints bring rewards, not what you want to teach the cat but what it learnt nevertheless.

Does coffee taste better from your favourite mug? Well, no and yes. Intrinsically, no it’s the same coffee whatever the mug. However, the mug becomes part of the ritual of taking the drug caffeine. And because caffeine gives the brain a sense of reward without the brain knowing this is only due to the caffeine, the mug become associated with the reward.

So, can you taste the differenece if the milk goes into the cup before the tea or the other way around? Well… find out for yourself at www.teatastetest.com where you can see the results and find out how to carry out your own experiment.

We tend to repeat what we have liked in the past and avoid what we have not liked or the unfamiliar, and this tends to lead systematic bias which can stop us exploring and seeking new experiences. Arguing with someone to convince them that their views are biased is useless, what can work is exposing them to the alternative viewpoint or experience.

The idea of learners as merely receptacles into which knowledge is poured was challenged: what is learned transforms what is doing the learning, and the transformation of the learner is done by the learner, not the teacher.

So gather some of your friends, go to www.teatastetest.com to try some science and enjoy a nice cup of tea (or coffee) into the bargain. Biscuits optional.