19 March, 2009

Designing for 'Flow'

When we are designing online learning experiences for students, it could be argued that there is an even greater need to keep students focussed and interested than in face-to-face sessions. The greatest attention stealer ever, the internet, is only a click away to an online learner, although even a 'captive audience' in a lecture might not always be paying attention much of the time.

Relating some of Csikszentmihalyi's ideas about 'Flow' to an online course, Shin's research from 2006, 'Online Learner's "Flow" Experience', explores Csikszentmihalyi's ideas and previous related research to explore how these ideas can improve students' focus and engagement. 5 measures of 'Flow' are identified, enjoyment, telepresence, focussed attention, engagement and time distortion (how much students lost track of the passage of time).

The data analysis noted the importance of students feeling that the level of challenge is relevant to their own skill level, in students achieving this 'Flow' state, and that female participants tended to underestimate their skill levels. However Shin concluded that the student 'having a clear goal' was more important in achieving 'Flow' than the appropriate level of challenge. Finally achieving 'Flow' was a good predictor of student satisfaction with the course.

So what does this tell us when we are designing online courses?

Firstly this research reinforces the idea that students need internal motivation and curiosity to completely focus on their studies. This level of motivation will vary from student to student, as will the appropriate level of challenge for their skills.

The research perhaps emphasises a need for a personalised experience suitable for the student. Is this at odds with social constructivist ideas about knowledge being formed socially? Does it mean it would be more difficult for students to work together and think together through a course, if they are being encouraged to learn differently?

Finally, one way in which we can help online students achieve 'Flow' is by reducing the cognitive demand of the technologies they are using. This can be through better design of systems and devices that they are using, which makes the technology invisible or at least more transparent. Devices like touch screen phones also increase transparency because they act more like the real world that we are used to interacting with. Better education about using the technology will speed up the learning process, further increasing transparency.

Don Norman
talks a lot about the effects of good design in 'The Design of Everyday Things' and Steve Krug does in 'Don't Make Me Think!'. In the short term we've got more control over better educating users to use the systems well, than directly improving their design. This education seems like a small thing, but it's a step towards freeing those students who are very motivated to focus on learning, and making sure that the challenge students face is related to what we want them to learn and not the underlying technology.

[image by margolove]

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17 March, 2009

Thoughts around re-usable stuff

I come to the debate on Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs) a little uninformed, but I thought of something earlier which I thought was an interesting observation.

If you know what RLOs are - then skip to the next para. For those uninformed or wanting to be re-informed, Nottingham's working definition is: "an interactive WWW-based resource based on a single learning objective which can be used in multiple contexts".

Whilst looking at a colleagues excellent work (well done Ken), I couldn't help but think what a pity the HE community in the UK can't work together better to work as a team to produce content - thus Ken's excellent work might be used by Liverpool, UCL or Brighton, and Edge Hill might use objects from other leading institutions throughout the UK, perhaps even worldwide.

Besides the usual RLO issues (fit for purpose, context specific content, multiple outcomes misaligned with the re-purpose and the largest issue: copyright and IPR), a major barrier to working like this is fear of sharing good work with our competition - why would we want to give our excellent materials away to Hull, Leiden or MIT, when these are the very things which drag student here. Well, two observations about that:
1) I think we are being a tad arrogant to think of our stuff as "World Class";
2) I don't think the quality of this type of work does bring students here.

However, if we did "Share" our stuff, then these two issues are addressed, because:
1) we would be encouraged to raise our standards to be seen on a world stage;
2) Our resulting excellent materials would be seen by far more students and therefore we would be more likely to attract students here as more will ahve seen our excellent work.

Finally, the interesting twist which niggled me to write this: around here academics DO produce world class materials and DO make them freely available to the world - and are rewarded by this institution for doing so, and in turn this institution is rewarded too - so what are these materials called? Books and Journals. Why can't we do the same for "Content"?

12 March, 2009

Presentation Slides and Learning in Lectures

The humble presentation slide is used by many educators, and I suppose that it would be easy to overlook the impact on learning of decisions made when creating and distributing these.

We've posted before regarding some issues to think about when creating slides. These have included asking if PowerPoint's animations help or hinder learning, and how to choose appropriate images.

What I'd never properly considered was the effects of when slides are made available, but this is something explored in Babb and Ross (2009), "The timing of online lecture slide availability and its effect on attendance, participation, and exam performance" in Computers & Education 52.4 [Edge Hill Library link]. Walter van den Broek has written a good overview, but very basicaly the authors found that when slides were available before the lecture there was greater student participation in the lecture, but no significant difference in exam results.

In the same issue of the Computers & Education journal there is an article by Savoy et al (2009) "Information retention from PowerPoint™ and traditional lectures", which aims to suggest situations in which presentation slides are beneficial for retention of information, and in which situations they have the opposite effect.

Like most things related to teaching and learning, there are a lot of things to take into consideration when trying to understand the impact of presentation slides on different types of learning. However these articles have started me thinking a bit more about how I use them in my own sessions.

[image by Andrew Scott]

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11 March, 2009

Wikis: The Community and the Technology

Recently I've come across more people who want to use wikis for projects and collaboration in the classroom. On the face of it using wikis is simple, but it is worth staff having a good understanding of how wikis work, and an awareness of issues that could arise.

We'll start by having a look at a range of wikis.
- Wikipedia (English Version) - The largest wiki.
- Pulp Bard - Colaborative project to translate the Pulp Fiction film script into a Shakespearean equivalent.
-Wikipatterns - A collaboratively updated book about different ways in which wikis can be used.
-Reading List for a Course Created by Students - Barely started wiki that students could use to recomend relevant books to each other. The idea is that it could both encourage students to reflect on why their reading was worthwhile, and to communicate to other student both now and in the future why different books and articles would be worth reading.
-Wikis in Plain English is a video that explains why wikis and collaborative online documents are useful, using the example of planning a camping trip.

From these we see that wikis generally contain editable pages, discussion sections, history sections and a web feed to subscribe to notifications of any activity on the wiki. I guess the first step is for users to know about these and gain some understanding of the processes that took place in the development of the articles.

Firstly someone needs to start off an article. On Wikipedia many articles start off as short 'stubs' just to get them started. If enough people are interested in updating an article the development can be very interesting, as shown in this screencast by Jon Udell from a while back. In this screencast we see Jon extensively using the History feature of the wiki.

The screencast linked to above shows how incidences of vandalism are dealt with on an openly editable wiki. Classroom wikis will generally be only editable by the class, and vandalism is easily traced back to the culpit in that sort of situation. If people have genuine disagreements with a claim made on the wiki, they can use the Discussion area of the wiki to query it with people before making changes. If you use a wiki in your class, perhaps you can encourage this as an initial step when making changes to existing work.

In Minocha and Roberts (2008), research such as Minocha and Thomas (2007) is said to show that
  • "inadequate socialisation at the start of the collaborative activity was a key obsticle in conducting group projects or activities at a distance".

They define socialisation as
  • "the social act of coming together for a common purpose, for example, when students familiarise themselves with one another and learn about the norms, roles, rules and code of conduct.
If you are teaching at a distance using colaborative tools like wikis, it is worth thinking about how trust and understanding between students can be encouraged and protected.

So if you want to get started using a wiki, what can you do?

Edge Hill University isn't able to provide staff and students with access to wiki software in the near future, so your projects will need external hosting. This does mean that users of the wiki will need to register for a username and password to edit the wiki.

pbwiki is the external wiki host that I have used myself. You can get one for free, but it doesn't contain the functionality to back it up, so you might need to either do this manually or think about paying. 1 wiki hosted for 1 year would cost about £70, or if there was funding and enough potential users and institution wide licence would be about £600.

If you want to explore other wiki hosts, have a look at WikiMatrix's Choice Wizard to see lots of different wikis that could be right for you.

If you want to delve much deeper into the world of wikis:

  • Listen to: a few episodes of Wikipedia Weekly to hear what goes on behind the scenes in the Wikimedia community. There's a bit of waffle at the start of these but bear with it it'll aid your understanding of processes in a very large scale wiki.
  • Read: Wikipatterns which contains advice about running wikis with different purposes, what to do and what to avoid.
  • Read: How Wikipedia Works which is an in-depth explanation of everything that goes into making Wikipedia work.

Finally, note that there are other ways to create collaborative documents that might be more suited to your needs than a Wiki. Online tools like Google Docs and CmapTools (for creating concept maps) might work for you.

[image by one laptop per child]

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09 March, 2009

Thoughts on the Future of Virtual Worlds

Virtual worlds like Second Life offer certain possibilities for teaching and learning, however issues like hardware requirements currently act as barriers to a wide uptake. Hopefully these issues, won't be a barrier for much longer and the possibilities will both become greater and more widely explored.

This beautiful video by Bruce Branit imagines one way in which virtual worlds could look and change our lives in the future.

World Builder from Bruce Branit on Vimeo.

Daden aimed to ask questions such as "How important will Virtual Worlds become?" in their "far reaching and provocative" 2007 Virtual Worlds roadmap (PDF). This monograph looks forward 100 years, and during the next 10 years they are expecting a massive increase in users and a move away from the model of isolated virtual worlds, running in seperate clients. In that timescale they also expect that virtual worlds may come to contain things like animation close to what we see in high end video games, better links with the real world (augmented reality), and automatic language translation.

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05 March, 2009

Managing Your Online Identity

There's an interesting conversation starting on the The Identity Studies Blog about blogging, asking the question "How compatible are the identities of blogger and published academic?".

In LTD we had conversations around slightly different, though related issues to do with general online identity. I suppose our questions would be "Do you try to keep your personal and professional online identities separate? Do you try to keep them controlled?"

I've created a simple diagram to help me think about the information available about myself, and it is interesting to see how personal and professional overlap. It is also perhaps a little alarming that there is so much information out there that is publically available.

I've just collected my information together on MyBlogLog while I'm thinking about managing online identity, and I'm setting up a page on ClaimID. Does a central place like this enable you to manage your identity and reputation properly? Does it enable anyone to find so much about you that there are dangers involved?

Why is this relevant to Edge Hill University? We are asking questions at the moment about what our role is in educating our students generally about new literacies and skills required in the emerging digital world. As we make decisions about encouraging students to use various open online services as part of their courses, do we want to advise students as best we can as to how they can be safe and in control of their reputation and identity? Perhaps even how they can use the resources created and stored in these services as an ePortfolio.

Two very interesting articles on this subject are The Shifted Librarian's Who is Managing Your Online Identity and the article from New York magazine that it links to.

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