e-Fiesta 2013 is the first conference I've attended in a long while where the sessions and keynote speakers are worth listening to. It may have been partly due to the relatively small size of the conference. As a result, all that was presented was well aligned with the theme: Open Learning. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that most of the participants weren't teachers but instructional designers, education departments in higher institutions and professional institutions. The diversity was refreshing. Personally, three things: a quote, a pedagogy and a dialogue, stood out in particular.
A Quote: Are you preparing students for their future or your past?
I've heard Suan, a Google Education Evangelist, present before and what I've always enjoyed is to hear how the world's largest search company envisions the future of education to be and how they are playing a part in realising that vision. The crux of his keynote was about how the future is unpredictable and whether we are preparing students well for it. Among the last of his slides is this quote which summarises quite appropriately his entire keynote.
Many schools, administrators and teachers often boast how they are equipping students with '21st century skills'. Deeper investigations into these pontific claims reveals that aside from the usual terms of collaboration, creative and critical thinking, there is little consensus and usually based on dogma presupposing a future whilst claiming that it is unpredictable. Suan's quote ought to push us to reflect and distinguish between perennial, universal skills and skills that are for a period.
As an example, online search education has been the buzz lately and there is a push for students to be equipped with such skills. With more and more of the world's information being logged and captured into the Internet, it certainly is important that students know how to use 'command+F'. But this skill is dependent on the fact that the future is a digitized world. What if it isn't? What if the digitized world is disrupted by another technological development, or disrupted by disasters? Conversely, skills like collaboration, creative and critical thinking will be required whether it's approaching a digital utopia or doomsday destruction.
A Pedagogy: The Participation Forum plugin
More accurately, the Participation Forum plugin is a tool, not a pedagogy. It was created by Brant Knutzen, a learning designer from the University of Hong Kong, who uses it to engage and motivate students to participate actively in discussion forums.
When I taught Humanities, there were several attempts by colleagues and myself using various strategies to encourage students to participate actively in the discussion forum. It was difficult to monitor, much less assess. In the end, the discussion forum became the proverbial tool that's left to collect dust at a quiet corner. Thus, it was exciting to see the Brant was able to get students to participate actively. Even more so in an Asian context where harmony is valued and conflict avoided.
Participation Forum graphically displays the interactions within a forum between the participants over time. Various examples are available to view on the website. This empowers the instructor or teacher to tell at a glance the dynamics and status of the discussion. Ultimately, the quality of discussion still rests primarily on the teacher who has to be tangibly present as a moderator or facilitator and knows the art of steering or pushing a discussion whilst remaining in the background.
Understandably, some teachers were concerned and wanted to know if the quality of the posts did improve and if it could be measured as well. I doubt the quality of a discussion can or should be measured algorithmically. Brant reported that despite not tracking quality, no one has tried to game the system yet and the discussions show quality and depth of thought. More importantly, because he sees these forums as part of his classroom, the experience between the classroom and virtual space is seamless. That is, discussions in class resume online which are subsequently used to build the next lesson.
I've since connected with Brant through email and we'll be exploring ways that my college's Humanities department with can learn and work with him. In the meantime, here's a video he shared if you're interested.
A Dialogue: Unconference
This is my first time at an Unconference which is basically a time set aside for participants to raise any topic for discussion. Predictably, it was a quiet start but it wasn't long before more participants got engaged as the conversation went deeper into issues we cared about, namely assessments (testing) and the willingness of institutions to contribute their work towards open learning.
Towards the end, I attempted to contribute towards the discussion by raising questions. My purpose was to have participants consider the flip (or dark) side of open learning which I'll explore further in the next post. In the meantime, you might want to read this article by Maria Bustillos to get started to think about the flip side of open learning.