Opening a Channel

Today I hosted a session that many would define as social learning. It involved connecting a group of people through a conference with chat, whiteboard and desktop sharing facilities. This post is mostly about the role of chat in these interactions.

Just a few minutes into the session, the expected learner patterns surfaced: active audio participants, active chat participants, and the quiet ones. Our conferencing system affords that extra option, chat,  that is very difficult to emulate in the classroom without spending lots of time in the process. When it comes to “social” learning, I have always supported the presence of as many participation channels as the underlying technology can afford.

We love audio participants. They keep things moving, and they are equally engaged in the class and in virtual classrooms. We can’t live without them. But it’s the second group, the chat type, that is intriguing in a number of ways.

It would be tempting to jump straight into some generalizations about the chat group. For example, that they are too shy to open the audio channel. I work in the software industry and frankly, there are some really quiet individuals indeed. Still, lacking statistics I can refer to, I will draw on personal experience to claim that the difference between software engineers and other professions is probably not that significant.

Also against this argument is the personal observation that many chat-type learners are very active. In fact, they are as chatty as the most eager audio participants, only they prefer… well, chat! So what’s holding them from using audio? Here is my personal list, by all means not comprehensive:

  • A personal style. Typing means there is extra time to think about what I am saying. That fraction of a second will allow me to better articulate my contribution, or help me reflect as I continue with my line of inquiry
  • Etiquette. I’m sitting in open plan, and six people around me can hear what I am saying. I don’t want to bother them, or I simply don’t want them to know what I am learning today
  • Technical fault. My headphones were fine this morning, but now they are not working. I don’t have time to fix audio before the session, fortunately I can still ask questions through chat
  • Environment. I’m sitting next to the sales team. They are on the phone all day and boy are they loud. If I open my microphone here, it will be the sales guys running the show
  • Language. Just two weeks in this country, my command of the language is poor and I’m still adjusting. But I need this training badly. Typing gives me a chance to spell- and grammar-check and my pronunciation is terrible anyway
  • Physical. I have a disability/injury/illness, I can’t talk

The presence of chat in audio conferences is an enabler. It will allow interactions that would otherwise be missed. But wait, there’s more: Have you ever worried about learner engagement in learning conferences? The chat thread acts as a parallel stream of information, a second channel the brain can tune to if for any reason it disengages from audio. Think of it as the scrolling titles in TV news, keeping the viewer’s attention as presenters work through uninteresting headlines.

The advantage of chat is that, unlike TV banners, they rarely go off-topic. At the session today, I even managed chat silence by typing contributions (paraphrasing, inviting questions, adding humor) when it was going quiet.

Is chat a channel you actively manage to keep learners engaged? I’d love to hear about it!

eLearning Conversion

I think I found a little gem in the HLM, or Hybrid Learning Model, as part of my postgrad elearning studies at the Open University. What is interesting is that when I first saw it, I didn’t think about learning design, its primary purpose most likely – I thought about elearning conversion.

What is the HLM? It’s a tool developed by the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Ulster (http://addl.ulster.ac.uk/odl/hybridlearningmodel). It provides a language for describing learner interactions (what they describe as learning events) through flash cards. Because the vocabulary stems from just 8 learning events, it is simple to assign one of the events to each activity within a course, then go deeper into what the exact interaction would look like.

Wait… was this about elearning conversion?

Certainly. Picture this: there is a very successful course that was designed for classroom delivery. So successful in fact that you have now been asked to convert the course into a viable elearning solution.

Where to start? The course design documents, of course. But there’s more good news: Like many successful courses created in the corporate space, this one developed incrementally from a slide deck and particularly polished presentation by a bright individual who no longer works at the company. Design documents? No such thing, the course evolved through multiple iterations into what it is today without leaving a document trail.

No need to panic – the HLM can be used to “reverse engineer” any course by decomposing it into learning events. The model provides resources to create a mapping or script that describes each activity, succinctly enough to require little time, but accurately enough to capture how learners interact throughout the course.

Nice, but why would we need that?

Yes, why bother, when it’s a simple matter of encapsulating the course into a PowerPoint, flash, web or other video/audio container? The reason is that by “canning” a successful classroom course, I am almost sure we’ll be canning its future success too. Learning is about interaction. And no, those brief interactive assessments at the end of each canned course module are not interaction – if in doubt, ask a Gen Y learner.

It’s Web 2.0 out there. When thinking about elearning conversion, we must look beyond learner-computer interaction and some simple form of summative assessment. A successful classroom course deserves a close look at how learners interact with the material, the instructor, and other learners. The key to its success lies partly on the content, partly on those interactions. An elearning conversion should successfully translate learner interaction by harnessing the many tools available in a Web 2.0 space, and this is where the HLM model may come handy. With millennial learners, it is no longer a matter of video, sound, and a few clicks to check knowledge.

The Hybrid Learning Model can be found at http://addl.ulster.ac.uk/odl/hybridlearningmodel.

 

Let Me Blend That for You

Most definitions of “blended learning” converge on a combination of face to face (F2F) learning activities and computer-mediated ones. Many learning institutions and corporations offer some type of blended learning, and it is almost impossible to imagine a very near future where some haven’t explored, if not fully implemented it. If some studies (Bonk, Kim & Zeng, 2005) placed the number of higher education instutions using blended at 93% back then, it’s quite likely we are at 100% now.

I look forward to the disappearence of the term “blended learning”. Its absence from the organization’s vocabulary will be an indicator of its learning design maturity. In the meantime, “blended learning” is an umbrella term, with multiple semantic variations that depend entirely on the background of each institution or company, and apparently grants a free licence to create some terrible learning concoctions. It is a term that focuses too much on technology, and usually neglects learning design and learner experience. Take, for instance, the illustration that appears in Wikipedia’s article on “blended learning” (as of 15 August 2012):

A chart titled Blended Learning Methodology with three components, Classroom Learning, Online Learning and Mobile LearningA sharp focus on technology when categorizing learning leads to separate entries for “Online Learning” and “Mobile Learning”, entries that are equally sized components of a blended learning chart. Anyone having trouble with the huge overlap between “Online” and “Mobile”? What about other non-classroom, offline, computer-mediated learning? What about the use of mobiles for online access while in the classroom? Sadly, “blended” only says the learning experience will combine computer/device-mediated learning with supposedly non-tech classroom. That, if you ask me, is limiting and a poor descriptor of what the learning experience will be.

 

It’s Not About the Ingredients

Recently I was involved in the design of a learning solution where blending was not imposed as a requirement – it simply felt like the right combination to achieve the learning goal. We could have gone F2F-only as expected, but ended up designing a blended solution that received 100% learner satisfaction.

What was the process? We didn’t focus on the “ingredients”. Nobody suggested “oh, we must do this online”, or “we could use a mobile app here”. Instead, we looked at the learners’ context, ways to optimize limited F2F time and best approach to create and retain reusable learning artifacts. The fact that the implementation of these requirements resulted in something that the industry calls “blended” is immaterial – we weren’t even looking at the implementation ingredients.

In fact, learners don’t care either. Many studies (JISC is a good source) confirm learners are comfortable adding new technologies to their learning mix. They will happily use technologies, and in some cases appropriate them to complement any learning solution that doesn’t fully satisfy their learning needs. In this context then, isn’t “blended” a term created by learning organizations that reveals their immaturity in adopting technology to create effective learning solutions?

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