ONL18: Reflections

As with all of these courses, the best part about it was meeting colleagues and having interesting conversations with them. Because of the way the course was organized, virtually all sessions were or involved conversations with colleagues. We do discuss courses a lot at work as well, but these conversations are often more practical than theoretical or pedagogical. It’s nice to meet colleagues from around the world and hear what they have to say about things we all wrestle with.

While figuring out our presentations and coursework, we were introduced to many practical applications, software and other tricks of the trade. Most of them will be useful, and those that will not, well, at least we now know that we do not care for them. In other words, we got to try out different ways of presenting our projects and most of us will use at least some of the software, platforms or websites we saw. I would have not known where to look for these on my own. Had I found them, I probably would have not had the patience to try them out

The more theoretical content of the course will also be useful to most of us, I think. Much of the pedagogical content seemed quite abstract. Other content seemed very practical, e.g. for building a blended course. I much preferred the latter, probably because I am currently in the process of creating materials for a blended course myself. Simply put, I was already looking for ways to structure certain elements on my own course and found stuff I can use. As a card carrying humanist, I should also say that I do recognize that people tend to appreciate utility more when they have an immediate need. Of course, I also recognize that the more abstract content will shape my thinking in the future as I get a chance to think about it a bit more.

Overall, I am hopeful for the future and grateful for the course. What worries me a little is that future teachers have to become content creators. This means not only using the occasional online quiz in class, but creating lecture videos, editing them, mixing the sound, lighting them, scripting them, and making them look professional while taking care of all the other content. It seems these skills go far beyond pedagogical skills and teachers will need training in, for example, using video editing software suites and the like. It’s a daunting thought that you have to become a multimedia wizard in order to teach if you don’t already have one foot in that world. But I think universities and teachers will find ways to adapt. They have overcome much greater obstacles in the past.

Salmon’s Model for Online Learning: Designing a Blended Course

I spent most of Topic 4 suffering from a flu and lacked the energy to study the materials when they were first posted. However, I do have to create an online blended course for the spring semester and thought I would look at what my group came up with and how their thoughts on the topic could assist me. I will be using the Coggle diagram my group made and especially Gilly Salmon’s five-stage model for online learning: (1) access, (2) socialization, (3) information exchange, (4) knowledge construction, (5) development.

At first, the model seemed quite theoretical, but upon further reflection, I noticed that it is actually a practical tool for thinking about how to create online modules from existing classroom activities.

The course I am working on is a writing course where students are provided (1) access to our Moodle-type platform and hence access should not be a problem. The students are already familiar with most of the tools. The one possible exception are the embedded videos on our online forums. However, this is an easy one-click system that should not cause problems. Having said that, it is probably best to instruct students before we have them deposit videos on the course’s online forum.

Part of the course will take place in the classroom and therefore some of the (2) socialization can be performed face-to-face. Getting to know each other in the classroom will hopefully enable everyone to continue working online. Based on our group’s discussions, classroom work will indeed help to get on with online work. If the course was a fully online course, socialization would probably be more difficult. Nevertheless, it is important to keep socialization in mind when we first meet in class. It might be best to group students in class and then let these groups work online on certain exercises.

One other thing that should be kept in mind is that group work must be tailored so that (3) information exchange and (4) knowledge construction are possible during the online activities. When initially flipping various lectures and exercises, I noticed that I had a tendency to think of the course in terms of individual students. This is something I should obviously change. I would like for the online parts of the course enable the students to work with less guidance and supervision. Preparing the exercises should take into account the type of online learning we want the students to engage in.

With (5) development, I would like to frame the course in a way that helps students work on their own writing projects as much as possible. With our exercises, I always try to link them to the students’ current work so that they will stay motivated throughout the course. The existing classroom exercises have been designed with this in mind, but it would be possible to design more exercises that work even better in this context.

In summary, the five-stage model for online learning is a useful tool if you take the time to think it through. It helps you to make a checklist that you can keep in mind when adapting existing materials to an online blended course. I was told that we have quite a few language teachers on our ONL course and any tips or insights from all of you would be more than welcome!

Online Group Work: Forming Groups, Creating Focus and Maintaining Interest

During the past two weeks, our group has thought about group work. This has of course made us more aware of our own group work practices. I think we were already pretty good at it, but it never hurts to get in a bit more practice. We started out with a few articles from which I gathered the following points.

There are problems like the free-rider and sucker effect in any group work scenario, but sharing the workload is generally seen as one of the major benefits of collaborative group work (Chang & Kang 2016). The problem is that some people end up doing most of the work while others sit back and enjoy the ride. This is probably a natural process where everyone in the group finds a suitable role and this role becomes solidified over time. I sometimes break up established groups in my own courses, because I have been told I should do so, but I have always felt a little bad about it. It can seem disruptive to the students. In other words, if students have managed to create a working group dynamic, why should the teacher break it up? It turns out that the free-rider and sucker effect is one reason to let students form new groups. The trick here would seem to be to recognize groups that work really well and, if necessary, reform groups periodically to avoid poor group dynamics.

Online work is a special form of group work, because it also involves maintaining focus, which can be tricky (Tsai 2013). I might as well confess that I once updated my Facebook page during one of our online meetings. We are all curious monkeys who will wander off in all kinds of tangents when the opportunity presents itself. Because the Internet is basically a giant machine to distract you from whatever you are doing, it happens. As I write this, I am streaming music, being prompted my social media accounts and already planning my next email. The Internet, as great as it can be, is a very noisy place.

Distractions do not have to be seen only in negative terms. The benefits of collaborative group work may have to do (at least to some extent) with the fact that group members want to act on what actually interests them (Donaldson & Bucy 2016). If our natural curiosity can be harnessed to service the task at hand, it can do wonders. I am sure most academically oriented people know what it is like to be driven to make sense of topics in their own field. We apply this in our own ONL group by dividing up topics according to what interests each group member. Sometimes the topics overlap, but this has not been a problem. When it happens, we get two or more perspectives on the same topic, which is a good thing.

When you are acting as a teacher, it is probably best to outline a project in a way that enables each student to pursue his or her interests. In other words, the framework of the project should be designed in a way that allows such pursuits. I have to also think that much of monitoring a group work projects involves getting out of the way once the project has been set up. Facilitating and monitoring the project are of course important, and online courses enable this in various ways, but once the group has found its footing, it is probably best to simply let things happen.

Chang, B., & Kang, H. (2016). Challenges Facing Group Work Online. Distance Education, 37(1), 73-88. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2016.1154781

Donaldson, J. P., & Bucy, M. (2016). Motivation and Engagement in Authorship Learning. College Teaching, 64(3), 130-138. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2015.1125842

Tsai, C.-W. (2013). How to Involve Students in an Online Course: A Redesigned Online Pedagogy of Collaborative Learning and Self-Regulated Learning. International Journal of Distance Education Technologies, 11(3), 47-57. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.4018/jdet.2013070104

Free Content and Creative Commons

After a few weeks of our online course and thinking about open learning, it has become clear that nobody is advocating for completely free platforms and content anymore. We now know that free platforms always come with some kind of cost. As a rule, if a platform (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.) is free, the user is the product. Our data is piped into algorithms that try to modify our behavior in very clever ways. We have been told that ads make it possible to give these platforms to users for free, but a lot of us have become very aware of the fact that these ads are not like traditional ads we may see on television or magazines. Everything is tailored to the single user and the manipulation is very aggressive.

In his book Free Culture (2004), the founder of Creative Commons Lawrence Lessig says  that his inspiration for the work came from the Free Software Foundation and free software advocate Richard Stallman. The book is an argument for the reduction of the scope of copyright laws. When I first read it, I was very much into free software and perfectly willing to challenge copyright laws. Now, things have changed.

Nine years after Free Culture was published, Jaron Lanier published in Who Owns the Future? (2013) In it, he wrote about Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram (who had only thirteen employees at the time) for a billion dollars: “Instagram isn’t worth a billion dollars just because those thirteen employees are extraordinary. Instead, its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to the network without being paid for it.” Why aren’t the people who make Instagram worth a billion dollars getting compensated for their efforts? This is just a single example, but it suggests that there is a whole other set of questions we have to address now that social media has really taken off.  Wealth is concentrated and distributed between a few central operators. Most of the work is done for free. The platform you use not only takes your labor, but it also bombards you with algorithms aimed at modifying your behavior. While all this is taking place, your brain gets used to addictive behaviors and makes you miserable. But, hey, it’s free!

It’s safe to say that most of our idealism about free software and free content has disappeared. There are many problems that follow the business models that base their revenue on the digital enslavement of their users. Many of us actually would like to and do pay for the media we consume in order to avoid the negative aspects of free media platforms. For example, I am happy to pay for my news services and do subscribe to some I like. I pay them money, they in turn don’t inundate me with ads and pointless junk, and of course they deliver high-quality content.

Nevertheless, I sometimes need materials for teaching purposes where I don’t need to worry about copyright or pay too much to use them. This is where the Creative Commons license comes in. It may have begun from an idealistic pursuit of free culture for all, but it is now a parallel system covering shareable content. There may be a lot of rhetoric about how our culture is now a “remix” culture, but real life tends to be more complicated than buzzwords. In Free Culture, Lessig writes about the way wealthy corporations have been able to extend copyright and keep their products out of the public domain almost indefinitely, and it’s easy to agree with him on why this is not beneficial to society as a whole. Reduction of copyright laws as a whole may still be the goal, but a second system like the Creative Commons license has created a practical option for all who want to share their stuff with others.

I think I still want to support both ideas. But my support now comes with a number of ifs and buts.

Do You Need a Personal Policy on Online Sharing?

Most of us have an online presence of some kind. Most of us also know a person who refuses to use certain online platforms or social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp, Google, etc. Whether you use none or several of these platforms, you have more likely than not thought about what you should and should not share online. You probably already have what we might call a personal policy on online sharing.

Today it is obvious that you should not share everything online on your professional or personal accounts. You should also be aware that different platforms provide different levels of access to whatever you share: some social media networks are fairly closed and others public. (Sometimes these networks are hacked and the users’ personal information is downloaded by people looking to exploit it.) If you decide to opt out completely, your data will be safe. But few of us do opt out, because social media has many benefits that enrich our daily lives.

Several books and studies that examine how people behave on social media have been published recently. Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies (2017) looks at online culture from a perspective that highlights the snarky, mean, cynical, clever and juvenile rhetoric that used to thrive on Internet forums. This attitude still prevails among the 4chan-crowd and their ilk, and the fear of being bullied by anonymous creeps is justified. Such groups have the power to oust anyone they choose from social media and they are often flippant enough to do so.

One of the most famous cases of massive online shaming happened in 2013 when Justine Sacco posted a joke on Twitter. The joke was in very poor taste and was retweeted numerous times while Sacco was logged out of her social media. When she logged back in the damage was already done and she had become infamous in just a few short hours. Jon Ronson writes of the case in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) and laments the fact that those shaming Sacco were not from the slimy underbelly of the Internet, but regular Twitter users. Ronson’s point seemed to be that many of us are just one step away from becoming vicious people who will not think twice about shaming someone online.

Dr Molly Crockett from Yale’s Crockett Labs is a neuroscientist who has studied the way we experience moral outrage online. In her article, Moral Outrage in the Digital Age (2017), Crockett points out that expressing moral outrage does have potential social benefits, but that digital media limits these benefits in many ways: online communities create echo chambers, they make it difficult to distinguish between truly heinous and merely disagreeable content, and they make the morally outraged less likely to do anything about real social issues. The problem is that expressing moral outrage is rewarding in itself and new tools like social media make this kind of self-gratification easier than ever. In an online lecture, Crockett speaks of “pure destructive retribution” and “outrage porn” that have no other function but to feed our need for the neurocandy produced by our own moral outrage.

We have probably experienced this ourselves at some point. In his book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), the author Jaron Lanier’s third argument is: “Argument 3: Social media is turning you into an asshole. […] Please take the possibility seriously.” And we should take it seriously by, at the very least, taking a look at our own behavior online. When you do, you notice that there is a lot to be anxious about on social media. You will probably also notice that you will be happier if you are able to detach yourself from it from time to time. It is a public forum, after all, where people are watching what you do and where everything you do will leave a trace. You are also watching people watching you and may even attach your self-worth to the way faceless strangers judge you online. This is unhealthy and incredibly stressful since you are giving people you don’t know enormous power over you.

How, then, should all this feed into your own personal policy on online sharing? You should draw your own conclusions, of course, but here are a few of mine. One, don’t assume social media is something it’s not. It’s a tool for communication, for teaching, publishing and a way of creating online communities. Use it as a tool or a means for something else. Two, the fear of online shaming should be considered very real. It’s like a fear of infection and shaming behavior makes very little sense when it does happen, but we think it is based on our brain chemistry — on second thought, it’s more like a fear of a zombie outbreak. It’s a risk we have to take online. Luckily, most people never have to go through online shaming and we are working on ways of mending it. (Those of you who read Finnish may want to read my interview with Dr Molly Crockett in the next issue of niin & näin. I will ask the journal if I can share some of her insights here as well.) Third, find your own community online. Knowing where you are sharing and with whom helps alleviate anxiety. When you share something within a closed or private community, your stuff may still leak out, but at least the risk is smaller when you know the community and its people.

Any thoughts? Please leave them in the comments.