Untrackable Learning

Footprint in sand

I was up early today following along with the #altc hashtag (has it already been a year?) when a tweet from Donna Lanclos caught my eye.

As I followed the thread back to Anne-Marie Scott’s comment about the “hidden learning environment”, it got me thinking about the unseen spaces that learners often set up independent of their classes, hidden away from their instructor and their institution.

To echo Anne-Marie’s point, these hidden spaces are out of reach of institutional data analytics, which is important to remember if you use data analytics to try and quantitatively measure what is happening in your asynchronous discussion forums (which, as a quick Google Scholar search can attest to, is something commonly done in online courses). While the data can give you some insight, it is definitely only one small piece of information and is by no means a full or holistic view of all the activity that may be happening within your course. The data can only tell you what it can see, and much of the learning and interaction that is happening in your course may be happening outside your view.

I see this first hand, in both the graduate level online course where I teach and in the k-12 level with my own kids. In my graduate level course, for example, learners this term have a separate Slack team where they connect and collaborate. It was set up by the learners themselves, and exists independent of both the institution and me. In my high school daughters case, much of the convo about school with her peers happens over Instagram or text message, although last year my daughter was becoming quite infamous among her peers for her Quizlet making abilities and was often asked to share her Quizlet’s with others to help them study (which is a separate blog post that is waiting to be written).

Three quick points about hidden learning environments.

First, these types of informal learning spaces are nothing new. Students forming study groups have existed long before online learning. But, like everything else, the internet has made the creation of these types of independent learning communities much easier.

Second, as educators, we should see the development of these kinds of informal learning communities by our students as something positive. We want to develop lifelong learners who can proactively establish their own learning networks, and, just as importantly, be available as a resource to their peers. Indeed, as I (and others) have written before, in network learning the ability to both be a resource and draw upon others as a resource in a reciprocal manner is important. For me, one of the most encouraging findings that came out of MOOC-mania was just how important these types of self-organizing study groups are to student success.

Third, these are safe spaces for learners, away from the eyes of their instructor. Places where they connect with their peers as peers, and it is important they remain as such. Having their instructor in the environment changes the dynamic of those environments completely. It isn’t their space anymore, no matter how much you may frame yourself as a guide on the side or co-learner. You are still their instructor and those unspoken power dynamics do exist. So, it is important that students have these spaces away from us. But we need to be mindful that they do exist and are likely a rich source of learning for your students, in both online and face to face courses.


Why I want to try Mattermost for classroom discussions

I am preparing to teach another course in digital facilitation for Royal Roads, and this time around I want to try using Mattermost, an open source Slack-like application, as the main focal point for interactions.

I am going to do a direct replacement here for this first time around, replacing the Moodle discussion forums that would normally be used with Mattermost.

The OpenETC has an instance of Mattermost up and running and I’ll be documenting the technical processes I am going through setting up a course team in Mattermost on the OpenETC site as a contribution to the co-op. As a co-operative, the OpenETC relies on users of their services to help create documentation and use cases for their technologies as part of using the tech, so I want to contribute something back in the form of help documents and such that might be useful for other instructors in the future. I’ll post that over at the OpenETC site.

I have also been following Ian Linkletter and UBC’s use of Mattermost in a teaching & learning context.

I want to use Mattermost instead of the discussion boards in Moodle for a few reasons.

More Free Flowing Conversations

Conversations in Mattermost seem to flow more naturally than forum posts. I’ve noticed that posts in discussion forums tend to be more formal and rigid. For example, one of the things I have noticed that students often do in discussion forums is include full citations within their discussion posts. I mean, I get why that happens and I suppose that is a good academic habit to develop. But it also is distracting from the natural back and forth that a discussion is supposed to be.

I think there is something about the design of discussion forums that encourages students to write more formally than is necessary. Students tend to pour over, rewrite, and polish a discussion post like it is a final paper, and then post. I would much rather a free flowing conversation, and I think that a shift to a technology like Mattermost can help with that as I have noticed conversations in tools like Mattermost, Slack, RocketChat and Teams tend to be more free flowing and spontaneous – more like an actual discussion, which is what I am looking for.

Real time capabilities

In addition to being asynchronous, it is also a synchronous tool so students can have real time chats in it. Conversation is instantaneous and has the potential to be spontaneous. If I am in Mattermost, students can see that and we can strike up a convo in real time. The way the Moodle discussion boards are set up at my institution, posts don’t get posted to a discussion forum for 30 minutes, which is meant to give time for editing and reflective thoughts. But isn’t really a good spontaneous real time chat tool. And yeah, I know Moodle has a chat feature, but I have never seen it used.

Better support for emoticons, gifs and memes

While it may seem silly, I do think that these are legitimate tools of expression that can go a long way in helping learners build their social presence within an online class. And a little thumbs up from me on a post sends a signal that I have seen their post, and that I am there. Of course, the thumbs up doesn’t replace conversation, but it does have its place.

This is especially important in this course where I seem to disappear for four weeks when they take over being the facilitators. This is by design as I want them to be the ones establishing a teaching presence and not me. So having something like a simple thumbs up from me on a conversation post that a learner is facilitating can be a subtle, yet powerful reminder that I am still there and have a teaching presence within the course without having to be so obviously involved in the activities they have designed and are presenting to the other learners.

Also, I want students to be able to fully express themselves, and if that means posting an appropriate meme or an emoticon in response to a discussion that fits the context of the conversation, then I want to support that. Mattermost makes that simple process easier.

It is how conversation is happening these days

Tools like Mattermost is how conversation are happening on the web these days. Slack, RocketChat, Teams – whatever the tool, these tools blur the lines between synchronous and asynchronous communication in a way that discussion forums cannot. This is a Digital Facilitation course, and I want to make sure these learners are able to experience the multitudes of ways in which facilitation and conversation is occurring these days, and how a shift in technology can change the dynamics of a conversation. The tools we choose do influence the ways in which we communicate, and hopefully a switch to Mattermost from discussion forums will allow them to experience how.


Online educators’ recommendations for teaching online

Using both Chickering & Gamson's Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, and the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework from Garrison, Anderson & Archer, Dunlap and Lowenthal set about to crowdsource a series of best practice recommendations for teaching online from seasoned online educators.

Model for Online Courses Giulia Forsythe CC-BY-NC-SA

What they have come up with is an excellent primer for any would be online educator that builds on the theoretical CoI model with some pragmatic and practical suggestions on how to develop a CoI borne out of years of experience by seasoned and practiced online educators.

The crowdsourcing that Dunlap and Lowenthal undertook was a bit more involved than simply asking on Twitter for recommendations. Dunlap and Lowenthal conducted their crowdsourcing over the course of 2 years, and included a healthy does of face to face crowdsourcing at 7 different professional education conferences to come up with a robust list of best practices. 

When they did their analysis, they discovered 4 prominent themes emerging from the recommendations by the online educators.

  1. Supporting student success (example suggestion: Model what you want from students (e.g., model how to share and interact in a discussion forum, provide exemplars of projects and other assignments, and engage in think-alouds that illustrate how to read and take notes from primary sources).
  2. Providing clarity and relevance through content structure and presentation (example suggestion: Make everything explicit; say more than you think you need to say.)
  3. Establishing presence to encourage a supportive learning community (example suggestion: Use video to introduce yourself to the class as the instructor. Ask students to do the same.)
  4. Being better prepared and more agile as an educator. (example suggestion: Sometimes you have to leave the LMS and find other technologies that help you better achieve your instructional goals.)

Around these 4 themes, Dunlap and Lowenthal then list the specific strategies and approaches that were suggested to them. If you have never taught an online course before, this is a very good paper filled with practical, classroom tested advice that will provide a good starting point for your journey.

Source: Online educators’ recommendations for teaching online: Crowdsourcing in action, Joanna C. Dunlap & Patrick Lowenthal, Open Praxis, Dec 6, 2017


Learning to learn from MOOC’s

As I watch my kids (14 & 11) progress through the public school system, I have often thought that there are big pieces missing in how they are taught to learn. 

MOOC Poster Mathieu Plourde CC-BY

This year, my 8th grade daughter had a teacher that was very explicit with the students and gave them instructions on how to take notes using the Cornell method. She has made their notes a gradable assignment. It is the first year where my daughter has had a teacher be so explicit with her study skills curriculum and I wish it would happen more often.

Especially with regard to how to learn online.

I have often thought that, when kids reach high school, that there should be a requirement that they take at least one course fully online to help them develop the skills necessary to be a successful online learner as those skills are quite different than the skills needed to be a successful student in a face to face classroom.

Which is why I agree with much of what Joshua Kim says. If we are serious about developing life-long learners who will need to continually update their skills and abilities throughout their life, then we should be placing more of an emphasis on helping students develop the skills they will need to be lifelong learners.

Like Joshua, I am becoming more convinced that MOOC's of all types, along with other forms of online learning, will be a big part of my kids lifelong learning strategy. So, shouldn't we be doing more to help prepare them for a future that includes lifelong learning online?

Source: Is Learning to Learn From MOOCs a Teachable Skill? Joshua Kim, Inside Higher Ed, Feb 26/18


Microlearning at Google

At BCcampus, we have regular CoP meetings of the managers where we share various tips and ideas. I am facilitating the next session, and have used the occasion as an excuse to dig into a project that I have been interested in for awhile now, the Google Re:Work project.

Re:Work is a Google project that researches and examines their own internal HR practices, and develops some best practices based on their research. I'll likely write more about this in the future as I find the Re:Work project interesting and helpful.

During their Re:Work research on what makes an effective team, Google discovered that the number one attribute that was common among all their high functioning teams was Psychological Safety (there are a total of 5 attributes, if you are interested). All members of effective teams feel safe and supported to take risks with each other, and to appear to be vulnerable in front of one another.

To help reinforce this idea of psychological safety among their managers, Google has employed microlearning in the form of email reminder prompts to their managers. They call these Whisper Courses. Over the course of 10 weeks, managers are regularly sent email "nudges" with ideas and tips they can try in their meetings or one on one's with employees to help develop psychological safety within their team.

Being Google, everything is measured and it appears these microlessons are working, with managers who implement the tips seeing a marked increase in their managerial effectiveness surveys.

I am a fan of this type of learning. Highly focused, bit-sized and likely very relevant for the intended learner who, being adult learners, highly value immediate relevancy in their learning. 

Google has made the templates of their Whisper Courses available for others.


Whisper courses: on-the-job microlearning with email
Debbie Newhouse and Regina Getz-Kikuchi, Google December 12, 2017