Looking back and looking forward

Time to unwind the intensive weeks with ONL211. It has been quite an experience, very much more than I expected. I already understand that I am now equipped with both a broader perspective on learning in general, and a bunch of new digital tools for learning. I also see that this will need some time, digestion, and implementations in the field to get the best out.

The PBL group work has been so valuable. Big thanks to all PBL 04: Sofia, Delene, Jeanne, Sanna, Eric, Sheena, and our facilitators Alan and Lena! I wish I could transfer even a bit of the great atmosphere to my students. If I imagine an alternative way of learning the topics we had: reading the material and writing essays or blog posts on my own, I would not have learned much and it would have been so boring. From this it becomes clear that group assignments have to be well-designed (as they were) but more importantly it has shown the power of community learning. There are of course different characters and personalities of learners, which can assume different roles in a group. Some are more reserved than others, but I am certain that group work can be the more effective way of learning to anyone. Group work is not always the best way, however. Individual assignments have also their place, also completely separated from the group context. They complement each other.

When looking forward to the courses awaiting in the next autumn, I feel that I can better recognize the challenges in still mostly-online-learning to come. Last autumn we were forced to adapt to it, now we can benefit from the learnings in the new situation, and when we will be over the pandemic, we will have so many possibilities to renew our teaching in the long term.

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Hybrid learning: provide coherence and support

The fourth topic “Design for online and blended learning” incorporated all the previous topics into a practical, current, and timely scenario to work with. We would get useful tools and executable practices out from this.

Challenges in communication. We saw that as the most difficult thing in online teaching. How to encourage the students to communicate? How to facilitate fluent communication? Why do the students hide behind the black screen and muted mics? The larger the number of students, the more challenging the communication becomes. Our group recognized that building a community is important, maybe the most important, for the learning process in online or hybrid environment. We got inspiration from an informative article written by Fiock.[1] We decided to build a handbook for this, from which we then could get support when building hybrid courses. As it is difficult to have very generalized guidance, we selected a case of a large hybrid course (100-200 students) over seven weeks for 2nd year undergraduates.

When processing this I realized that I had not yet done pure hybrid teaching yet but blended and online only. For laboratory exercises hybrid really does not work but blended we already did to decrease the number of physical lab hours and number of people in the lab, to meet the restrictions due to covid-19. I had heard about hybrid exercises at our department: there was limited number of people onsite, and there was also an online channel open to the same space. The online channel was not very popular, the only active proportion of students were really the ones onsite. On the other hand, on my purely online exercises, there were a few people in the beginning of the course but less and less towards the end. Obviously, the current format in our school for exercises: a weekly set (mostly calculation problems) which students can discuss with others and get help from teachers at the exercise sessions, does not transform to online environment. At all.

We produced a “manual” for facilitating community as a function of time over the course. We see that community building and fostering the learning community requires a well-planned and clear structure, with awareness and active participation from the instructor. See the whole manual at: https://www.sutori.com/story/pbl-4-design-for-online-hybrid-learning–TMuFWTfjFUUiopdSZJmvbsgj

How will I put our findings into practice then? At least one aspect will be a more defined building of small groups. This far the groups for lectures and exercise sessions have been “ad hoc” which really does not build the community and this format works poorly in online environment. Maybe the exercises could be group assignments? I feel that this needs to be designed very well, communicated to the students, and actively supported. At least for the lectures, groups for group assignments shall be set for the whole course.

[1] H. S. Fiock, Designing a Community of Inquiry in Online Courses, International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 21(1), 2020. http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/3985/5296

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Fear and loathing about group work

Starting the third topic with FISh approach starts to feel routine already! Our group gets to work, knowing that first it is a bit scattered, but it will boil down to a nice piece.

This topic was something our group was enthusiastic about. We found that enabling successful group work requires motivation from the learners, and for that the learners need to see the learning process in a new way. There must be a mindset shift from the teacher and content centred learning to learner and learning process centred. This would of course affect other aspects of learning, but our group considered that the mindset shift is a requirement for a group to work efficiently together.

From my personal experience in science and engineering, not all the students are very thrilled about doing group work. They rather study individually. Other PBL group members shared same experience. So how to improve this and inspire the students for group work? We concluded to investigate this more in a frame of an exaggerated case. We portrayed an engineering student with all the negative and false conceptions about group work: how it is just easy for the teacher, how some students just exploit other’s work, how they will never have to do group work after graduation.

For the student we then created justified arguments why group work actually is an effective way to work. We convinced the fictional student how it will be there all the way through their professional career, even if called with different names. That is simply because groups and teams are effective! We presented our work as a series of videos on flipgrid.

When reflecting our group’s findings towards the implementation for group work in my courses, I also think that group work must be wrapped into a package that is more appealing to the students. Ideally so that already the first impressions of the task resonate with their expectations about meaningful studying and more importantly their career expectations, i.e. that it is relevant for them and it is visible in the task setting. Besides the task, the expectations (content, format, time) should be transparent. These parameters have been also recognized by Brindley, Walti and Blaschke [1]. Maybe in technical education the traditional conception of learning (content and teacher centred) is still strong, but I am certain that through experiences of successful group work also the conception of learning will shift towards the learner and learning process centred.

This was an interesting topic and our group’s findings will be so useful for me. What a wonderful piece of group work again!

[1] J. E. Brindley, C. Walti, L. M. Blaschke, Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10, 2009. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v10i3.675

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Gone with the web? Share your learning material and lose it forever – or not

After the second week we had a reflection week, which is a great idea from the ONL organizers to help participants gather their thoughts and catch up! However, at least I ended up catching the other things but ONL, because… no deadlines, less self-discipline.

Our second topic was about open learning and sharing which sparked interesting discussions in our PBL group. To many of us, open learning material, textbooks, videos, and sharing were quite new themes and we had not been practicing very much of openness ourselves. We were curious but somewhat reserved.

I had used a few open resources for preparing my teaching, because there is quite a lot material about chemistry online. My perception was that the quantity overwhelms quality in open chemistry material. Over the course of the topic 2, while reading the literature and the background information, I first realized that “going open” is a trend. Maybe not so much in chemistry yet, but certainly in humanities and societal science. I was surprised by the research results [1, 2] that open material can be better than the commercial “old school” textbooks, for example. Encouraged by this finding, I wanted to find “if there are any seriously taken” chemistry textbooks out there open. I found a very good open resource, openstax,[3] which provides titles that compare well to those commercial textbooks I have been using. Wow! I started seriously to consider using that resource on my own courses.

Using open material as a resource for your teaching is one thing to adapt to but the next, more “serious” and harder-to-take, step is to open your own material. Looking at that, I feel today quite reserved like many of our PBL colleagues. This is definitely an interesting opportunity, but I see it as something that could happen after some time. Especially a model where part of the course material is published and opened is appealing from the advertising point of view. It would be a good opportunity to attract more interested students to the elective course I am teaching. At this point (in the middle of adaptations related to the pandemic), opening my learning material is however too much, I feel. Now I have to allocate my resources in making the online/blended/hybrid learning experience as good as possible. Once the pandemic is over, I will think of the opening question again. Learning about how to use creative commons license was very useful. With CC licensing there are clear principles in place which should be respected.

The controversial nature of topic 2 was clearly visualized by our PBL group presentation [4], which refined to a fun but realistic comic strip where two teachers have a debate on the benefits and disadvantages of opening and sharing the learning material. At least to me, the comic strip reflects well on my own feelings: which way to choose after all?


[1] John Hilton III et al. Review – Open Education Group (openedgroup.org)

[2] Hilton, J. Open educational resources, student efficacy, and user perceptions: a synthesis of research published between 2015 and 2018. Education Tech Research Dev 68, 853–876 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-019-09700-4 and references therein

[3] OpenStax hosted by Rice University

[4] https://share.pixton.com/qrv7hkb

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Big bang!

You all know the pain and the intensifying feeling of guilt of not getting started with a massive writing task aiming to produce something that you have never actually done before… Like trying to get the first lab report done (on time!) back in the days of my first year of studies and in front of writing the first chapters of thesis. But this time it very soon feels different, the pain is off the shoulders after the first lines! I am writing my first ever blog post smoothly and fluently, and yes, with confidence!

So, this blog post should be a reflection about the first topic that we worked on with our amazing PBL group 4 on ONL211. The course kicked off with topic “Online participation and digital literacies”, which I felt so up to date in these COVID times and so felt the group mates. The scenario resonated well with us and it was easily approached. The scenario was supported by the videos by David White and an interactive webinar. The conceptualization of “digital presence” i.e., the resident-visitor/institutional-personal space[1],[2] was an eye-opener to me. I saw myself as a textbook example of a visitor, through the personal-institutional axis! Being aware of this I started thinking of am I really this old or just old-fashioned, I need to move towards the residence, or I am lost. With small, safe steps though, I decided.

I must admit that I was a bit scary in the start of this course, during the first introductory weeks. I remember thinking: how on earth is this going to really work??? I mean people from different time zones working online, different backgrounds, going to work with set of online tools new at least to me. But our PBL4 group was amazing from the first meeting, and it was a huge relief to hear that many of the colleagues shared the same anxiety with the online teaching reality: the fear of making a fool of oneself, becoming a meme or going viral with a major fail during an online lecture. It was also comforting that some of us were fluent in their digital expression and could help us less fluent. The two weeks with the topic one flew at speed, and the project materialized easily onto the padlet and I love the outcome What the FISh?…The raw and uncut story about how PBL group 4 started to use digital tools.. Thanks to the whole group, amazing work! Learnt how to use padlet and realized that memes are quite efficient in delivering your message on digital platform, much more so than just plain text or “official” figures.

When looking back to the two weeks on topic 1 with the group, I feel that all the doubts are gone, and I am sure that the coming weeks will be of great fun. I became more confident with leaving social traces into the digital space, started to move towards the resident identity as I hoped at the beginning of the first topic. I certainly will use memes more and started to consider how I could use padlet or mural in my teaching. I know already that my next courses will change with these lessons learnt. Even when we eventually get out of the pandemic, the digital items we familiarized with will remain as tools in the box – or places to visit 😉 as in the visitor-resident space.

Like the other massive writing tasks: the first lab report and the thesis, so was this very first blog post of mine not so massive after all, but much more of another learning experience. The next post won’t be that massive anymore!

[1] White, D. & Le Cornu, A. (2011) Visitors and residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9). Available here

[2] http://daveowhite.com/vandr/vr-mapping/

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Hello world!

Welcome to Aalto. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

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