Saturday, 20 September 2008

CCK08 - looking for patterns

The second week of the connectivism course has got me thinking about the relationship between educational theory and practice. The weekly readings and following some of the discussions, have started me on a quest for patterns to help me decide if I could apply some of the theoretical approaches to my work as a high school language teacher.

In the course of this week I have learned that I am not quite competent enough to engage in academic English discourse in a productive way. It's rather disappointing, since I would like to somehow be able to be part of the negotiation of an emerging theory or pedagogy. After all, I will eventually be in the front line of implementing it if it gains a more official status. Yet, it seems that as far as education is concerned, the movement is always top-down - researchers formulate their theories first (up there somewhere in their ivory towers), and if ministries, local authorities and other vested interest groups buy into it, they will start putting pressure on practising teachers to implement them.

When I did my MA and teacher training some 20 years ago, it was all about differentiated education. We were asked to read the theories , but there was no advice as to how to incorporate it in the classroom. Teachers were intuitively expected to find their own methods, since we are all individuals as teachers with our own preferences and strengths and weaknesses. I can still remember working long hours at night trying to prepare personalised exercises to cater for very heterogeneous students. I would argue that it was practically impossible for any one teacher to reach each individual student in big classes of 30-40. But the 'good' teachers were the ones who sacrificed all of their own time pursuing this.

Next it was the introduction of constructionism, together with pedagogies and methods, such as co-operative learning, experiential learning and inquiry-based learning. I really worked hard to understand what this was all about, especially as I, myself, was the product of the good old behaviorist methods, which must have been ingrained in my system, and which teachers are said to inadvertently perpetuate in their own teaching. I read volume after volume looking for some pointers as to how to change my classrooms into constructivist workshops where all students would enjoy learning at their own pace making use of their varying abilities. The best advice I ever found was along the lines: you won't truly have understood what constructionism is until you are able to verifiably apply it in your classroom. I doubt I truly understand it even now...

And yet, I did see the need for a change and improvement of school practices. I was just left so alone, as many colleagues were happy enough with their cushy tenures and refused to try anything new. Rejecting new methods while securing long-established comfort zones is a strong survival mechanism inside the teaching profession, quite understandably, though, given the scarcity of further training budgets, for example. In addition, the straight-jacket of externally-imposed testing routines (highly respected by students' parents, by the way), still called for the old-style rote learning of pre-set facts. I also saw warning examples of ill-advised, although well-meaning and enthusiastic, teachers applying experiential learning - eg. my daughter's maths teacher, whose adage, when a student asked for help or guidance, was simply 'you will get it'. In the end, my daughter never 'got it' and now hates mathematics! Or whole schools adopting inquiry-based learning as their only method, leading to each and every teacher starting new courses in all the different subjects by asking students to define their own inquiry problems. Students soon got tired of exactly the same repetition and lost their initial motivation.

And now it's personalised learning and connectivism that are the latest educational hype. Even though I do appreciate many aspects of connectivism, I don't yet believe that it will be the one and only solution to revolutionise education. I can already picture schools letting their students loose on the net to find their own PLEs and PLNs, but what they learn and understand is another question. More and more, I think that connectivism is a good way to learn in small doses. Yet, young people especially still need some face2face interaction, too. They need
guidance about critical thinking, media literacy and focused reflection- I don't believe they will just 'get it'. Personalised learning and connectivism, yes, since they seem to enhance the enthusiasm and motivation of students, who would otherwise waste their time in the drone zones of traditional classrooms. Further, from a teacher's point of view, finally I am beginning to see the light at the end of a long and confusing tunnel of managing heterogenous student groups. Thanks to modern technology, it will at last be possible for students to partly tailor their own learning without the teacher having to do it for them! What's more, teachers won't have to work in isolation any more, if your own colleagues are reluctant collaborators you can establish your own online learning and sharing network.

But not exclusively personalised learning and connectivism, as an end in themselves, or for everybody to the same extent. Learners are different, and teachers should avoid rushing on the bandwagon and throwing the baby with the bathwater - even behaviorism still works in certain learning contexts!

I look forward to the learning and insights of the coming weeks.

Photo: Droplet Patterns by rob.owen76 on flickr

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

CCK08 - random connections of today

Many people have blogged and commented about the random nature of connective knowledge. Going through some of the course material, and getting into the hyperlink-hopping mode certainly does lead to random connections. I somehow got to look at Stephen Downes' slideshow 'Toward a New Knowledge Society', in which this slide 14 with its Andy Warhol Marilyn pictures found its way into my dreams last night.

Waking up this morning the Andy Warhol method of multiplying the same image over and over again with varying colours to create a piece of pop art made me think of all the blogs of this course. I have seen many summaries, mind maps, and other representations of this week's readings in different blogs. Basically, the content is the same, but it is presented in different forms. All these put together would create something remotely suggesting the idea of the Marilyn prints. I know, I know, this is vastly oversimplifying things - naturally each blogger or mind mapper has added their interpretations so it's not exactly the same as reproducing the same image in different colours. As far as my learning is concerned, I'm still struggling to find the significance of such a multitude of 'nodes in the network'. Possibly, just as Andy Warhol only used a certain number of Marilyn images to create the whole, out of the hundreds of blog posts on a particular theme, my job is to pick and choose the best ones / the ones that work for me.

Nevertheless, I started reading about Andy Warhol in more detail, and naturally came across his famous quote from 1968: "In the future everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes." (At this point I started worrying whether I should admit that I actually look for information in Wikipedia?? At least many of my colleagues at school don't usually accept it as reference in students' work.) This then led to the discovery of the latest adaption of this quote. Apparently the popularity of social networks and blogging has changed the quote into "On the Web, everyone will be famous for 15 people." Good, eh? I should check the validity of this statement during this course. I wouldn't actually talk about being famous, but making some connections - whether it will be min. 15 or not.

But the randomness continues. The quote made me think of numbers and remember to look at the chart that Roy Hanfling had made about the course posts on Moodle, which then got me to learn about the power law diagram (pheww, this was a link to Wikipedia, so no worries any more!). By then, after getting sidetracked so many times I started feeling slightly guilty of not sticking to my resolution of focusing on the weekly readings. Luckily, Stephen Downes' comment to Roy Hanfling gave me some consolation. He said: "It is in the contributions of the long tail that the most interesting contributions may be found."

So now I'm thinking of the great adventure that online learning can be. When before could we have explored so much, so easily by just clicking away from hyperlink to hyperlink, following every whim and instantly finding information? And just as my family's road trip across the US a decade ago revealed - it's worth venturing out to the less-trodden little sideroads for unpredictable and immemorable discoveries.

PS.PS. On flickr a conversation started how the rabbit in the photo seems to be dropping something, and what it might be. The last comment in the thread is: "he's dropping knowledge"! Which finally puts an end to all this randomness and brings me back to this week's course theme: What is knowledge ;)

Photo: Rabbit Rd. - Route 66 by dawnnakaya on flickr

Monday, 15 September 2008

CCK08 - new week, new start, going on a diet!

After the hectic first week time to refocus. In the course of devouring the abundant course material last week I came across a myriad of metaphors and analogies - "taking this course is like...". I'm now joining those ranks with my experience. For me the first week was like being treated to one of those luxurious cruise ship buffets, where invariably you end up eating too much with the inevitable indigestion that follows. Eyes bigger than your belly, appetite grows while eating - been there, done that...

After the rather ill-advised gorging, this week I know better to resist the temptation and only savour what I enjoy the most. I don't want to feel overwhelmed anymore. Last week was a strong reminder and a good learning experience of what the deluge of information means in practice. Still, I don't feel the need for more structure or guidance either. I am quite thrilled about creating my own ideal menu out of all the theories, academic mumbo jumbo (sorry, I have been a grassroots practitioner for too long!) and fascinating insights from so many different people. And definitely I don't wish to lose the wide selection to pick and choose from- there is always a little space left for some unusual, new tasting sensation even after a gala dinner.

This week I want to reflect a bit more deeply on the weekly readings. I indentified with Lisa's blog post about the constructivist nature of this course. For me it's been a few years since my last academic further studies at the university, so I desperately need to construct some
understanding of certain key ideas of connectivism in my mind before I feel confident enough to engage in the conversations more actively.

Always the pragmatist, though, I know that my main interest will be in the possible applications of connectivism into my everyday work as a high school foreign language teacher. Over the years, I have learned, though, that it does pay to try and stay up-to-date of the latest research and academic developments in education and try to apply some of it in small case studies at the school level. There should be more connections between educational researchers and teachers, I feel. The gap between these two worlds is often too wide. I am interested in seeing whether this course will manage to foster any such connections, or whether this network will soon have strictly separate subgroups of academics, teachers, IT specialists, participants in different countries etc. etc. Concerns about the lack of a prerequisite amount of theoretical knowledge have already been voiced. This kind of talk makes me feel rather intimidated and inferior plus very hesitant about daring to participate and comment. Although, at the end of the day, I will gladly leave the more academic hair-splitting of terms, for example, to the university circles.

Photo: Grand Gala Buffet by mikepilat on flickr

Saturday, 13 September 2008

CCK08 - a massive global classroom

Not thinking about all the obligations in my 'first life' I registered on the online course titled Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. Over 2000 participants from all over the world involved in finding new paths in education - and all this for free! Who could resist jumping at the chance?

During the first week, following the discussions around 'What is connectivism?' and trying to get through the interesting readings provided by the course facilitators George Siemens and Stephen Downes I have realized how totally addictive the online world can become. It has kept me glued to my laptop till early hours of the morning flitting all over the place (or as one participant, Nellie Deutsch, commented - it should now be 'all over the places'!). Ideas, theories, arguments and counter-arguments are still rather an incoherent mess in my head, to say the least, and consequently I have been more a lurker than an active participant. But maybe just as well. I am wondering about the real productivity of such a huge network. Unavoidably, a lot of the talk going on in the various forums is mere drivel. No wonder there has been a lot discussion about filtering and avoiding the 'noise' this week. I still haven't worked out how to stop all the hundreds of emails I inadvertently subscribed to when sending my first forum post. Unfortunately, I can't help getting sucked into giving all of them at least a cursory glance - just in case I find my perfect learning mate or a gem of an idea. 'Overwhelming', 'chaos' and 'exciting' are words that I have read over and over again this week - and they seem to quite aptly describe my own experience, too.

Apart from all the confusion about getting my bearings I managed to learn something about Google maps. I got rather obsessed by having my own pin on the map of course participants that Rodd Lucier had set up for us. I tried and retried in all different ways, but whenever I went back to the map to admire my pin amongst all the others, it had mysteriously disappeared! If it wasn't for the kind help and advice of Rodd himself and another participant, Pierfranco Ravotto, I wouldn't have learned in the end that Google maps only allows around 200 pins on one map and then makes a new 'page' and a new map for the next. So, I had, in fact, succeeded in adding my pin every time and appeared on page 3 about 6 times! How embarrassing... But now finally I am there! A good example of how motivation drives your learning irrespective of the time and effort needed ;)

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

New school year well on its way

Where did the long summer break disappear - once again? I seem to have taken an almost total break from anything school or work-related during my summer holiday. Must have really needed it, and thoroughly enjoyed it, too! Stress-free home life and only a short car trip to central Europe and England. Lovely!

But now it's full steam ahead again. Actually preparing a short presentation for a distance teaching seminar for tomorrow. I am a bit ambivalent about it all, since I have never ever prepared a distance course myself. But I am going to talk about students' interaction and collaboration in international school projects - a topic I hope will also be relevant to creators of distance courses.

While doing my slides I came across a nice tool for creating visual word clouds called wordle. Unfortunately, I got totally carried away with it - and am now putting the last touches to my presentation in the middle of the night. Not good! But anyway, here is a nice word cloud of my blog:
Nice, huh? But now on with my presentation or I won't be able to stay awake tomorrow to give it.