Joel Martinsson, zooming out.

Taking this “course” has been a tremendous experience. I write “course” because from early on I never saw the meetings, the webinars, or the assignments as part of my regular work load. Instead, the ONL201 provided a welcoming break from the sometimes-hectic academic life and the challenging time that we all, in our own ways, have to deal with right now.

And yes, I have also learned several things in the ONL201: from how to properly use Zoom, how to work with new and innovative online learning tools such as MindMeister, and mastered––well, at least learned more about––the proper online learning terminology. But while the course has given me lots of new insights, it has also done something that likely will have a greater lasting impact: made me realise that I can meet new people and make friends from all around the world without actually leaving home.

I have always valued the personal connection and in-person meeting in the class room. I still do. But working in the wonderful PBL13 group, sharing experiences, and laughing together have made me realize that personal connections and friendships can be formed from Sweden to Singapore (as long as, in this case, there is a German Professor willing to share his Zoom-room).

The most important lesson that I take from ONL201 is therefore not the new online tools teaching methods that I will use in my teaching, but a belief that the personal relations, mutual understandings, and openness to other people’s views that I value so highly in the campus-classroom can be formed in the zoom-classroom.

For this I thank all participants in the ONL201 in general, and the PBL13 crew in particular, for making this a wonderful experience. I look forward to seeing you all in the future; perhaps, when the pandemic and all its tragedy has blown over, even without having to borrow a German Professors Zoom-room.  

Just-in-time for Blended Learning

Imagine you are lecturing in front of a full aula with over 100 students. The topic is parliamentary democracy in national context. A topic which, of course, is your favorite. The students are mainly freshmen at the University. Since you reaaaaaaaaly want the lecture to go well, you have bunkered down for days: reading up on the latest findings, figured out why these are interesting, and come up with a way to present them in a new and exciting format. When the day comes, you (think) you deliver the lecture in a pedagogical, innovative, and engaging way.

At the end of the lecture you notice that in the end you lost the attention from at least 50 percent of the students—what happened?

I believe that many of us, myself included, too often have designed our lectures without considering how diverse the student group is. The failure to recognize this diversity has in extension led to a search for the “the perfect lecture”, a holy-grail that––much like the holy-grail itself––likely does not exist. Realizing that I myself had set out on this quest, I decided to turn back and start over. Instead I asked myself why my (imagined) perfect lecture had drastically failed to reach so many students.  

Instead of trying to find the perfect lecture I sat down and thought about the lecture from the students’ perspectives. Who, in fact, are the students sitting in my class? And how could thinking of students in plural help explain my failure to capture their attention? I decided to do a very rough sketch of who the students in my class are (note: that this will, of course, look very different for everyone). Without digging too deep in the pedagogical literature or interviewing the students in my class, I divided them into four categories: (1) the no-shows, (2) the hard-to-follow-shows, (3) the regular-shows, (4) the unwillingly-bored-shows.

The no-shows are as the name suggest the once who do not, for a variety of reasons, come to class. The second group, the hard-to-follow-shows, are the students that, again for a verity of reasons, have difficulties following the lecture in its regular format. The third group, the regular-shows, are the students who I believe have the most to gain from a regular lecture. These are the students who are seeking guidance in the readings and want to understand the main arguments and concepts.  The fourth students, the unwillingly-bored students, are the students who find the traditional lecturing boring: they have already grasped the main part and the important concepts—the want engaging discussions, not a monologue.

Thinking of students in this plurality now makes it clearer that the search for the “perfect lecture” is a deed-end mission: the perfect lecture does not exist, because the perfect lectures is different for everyone.  This, I believe, is why berended learning, particularly online, is so important.

The next time I did my class I had these four student groups in mind. Rather than trying to address them all in a single lecture I tried to meet them on their own turfs. To do this I has both online videos and I held in-class meetings. Using the just-in-time-teaching pedagogy (fSee the Vanderbilt center for teaching for an overview) I had the students submit two types of questions based on the video lectures: clarifying questions (about basic concepts) and discussing questions (for in-depth learning). I took these questions in and designed the in-class sessions based on these, were: the first hour was spent on the clarifying questions and the second hour for discussion-questions.

The basic idea behind the structure was that each group would benefit from a particular part: the no-shows from the videos, the hard-to-follow from the clarifying part, the regular-shows from the general mix, and the unwillingly-bored from the discussion part. After the course I surveyed the students about their experience. The results were generally great: 90 percent of the students liked the format; 85 percent felt that they could ask more questions; and almost everyone felt that they could participate in the discussions.

What I take with me from this experience, and also what I want to contribute with to the discussion about blended learning, is that blended learning should always keep the plurality of the students in mind. The major advantage with blended learning in my mind is that it opens up the possibility to address students at multiple platforms and in with multiple pedagogical techniques. How to continue developing this approach in an online context is a topic for further discussion and reading: a discussion I have had with colleagues at the ONL, and a discussion that will continue long after the course has ended.

Why everyone hates group work (and what do about it).

“This assignment will be a group work”.

When I as a bachelor and master student heard the teacher utter this sentence, two things immediately came to my mind: (1) not again and (2) if I can choose my own group member, who should I choose? Everyone of course reacts in different way to the prospect of group work, but I do not think that my reaction is uncommon.  

For a variety of reasons group work is despised by students and celebrated by teachers. In this short reflective blog post, I want to give a brief reflection on why I think group work is so despised among many students and what can be done about it.

But first, why do so many students dislike group work, and why are they, like me, so keen on choosing their own group-members? Part of the truth can probably be found in the meme below:

The phrase “it is funny because it is true” has been so accurate; who can’t recall—or admit that they have been—one of these in a group work? While the people who are free-riding on the works of others can be annoying in the group, I don’t think the free-riding itself is the biggest issue. For me this was never that much of a problem: if people do not want to help, fine, there is usually enough people to carry the project over the finish line and deliver the end-product. The annoying part, I believe, mainly comes after the group work: when everyone, even the free-riders get the same grade.

To grade the end product as something that everyone in the group is equally responsible risks leading to that one diminished the individual contributions and the learning process itself. To solely grade the end product is a primary example of when the goals with the assignment, for example to increase collaborative learning and cooperation skills, does not correlate well with what is graded. In this case the assessment of the groupwork interferes with the groupwork by creating the wrong incentives. To think about what type of grading that will stimulate a great learning environment for group work could therefore be one way to make students hate group work a little less.

However, before answering the question about what type o grading that should be done, instructors should ask themselves another question: is a grade needed at all? Jesse Stommel, founder of the critical pedagogy lab, has been leading the way on ungrading, arguing that much common grading not as much about “giving feedback or encouraging learning and more as a way of ranking students against one another”. Stommel instead points out that there are other forms of assessment that can be done when necessary, such as grade free-zones, self-assessment, and process letters.  I particularly found the self-assessment very interesting. Self-assessment is when the students, in dialogue with the teacher, gives themselves a grade based on their performance. I think this can be particularly helpful in group work, where the students would be able to think and reflect about how they contributed to the group and—equally important—what they learned from the process.

In conclusion, the problem of group work may not be as much in group work itself but rather about how it is graded. It is therefore important to first think about if grading is needed for the particular assignment and, if it is needed, what type of grading that will stimulate a productive collaborative learning environment.  If one succeeds with this student may not only start hating group work a little less—they might even enjoy it.

Inequality and Open Education

When I signed up for the ONL course I did it with because (a) I wanted to learn more about online teaching and (b) that I thought it might be useful in the future. The two objectives have already been fulfilled, since the future has arrived a lot earlier than I thought it would.

In this short reflective blog post I want to reflect, again, on digital literacy. I know this was last week’s topic, but I think it is important to consider it also when we discuss open education and inequality. Particularly since this have had direct relevance for my personal work this week. A colleague was unable to make and upload videos for a course, so I had to both record and upload the videos instead. This was a swift reminder that not only some students, but also some teachers, have difficulties adjusting to the technical realities of online teaching.

Last week I also had the privilege to attend a conference on digital learning at Linnaeus University. At this conference I was introduced to the MOOC concept, something I had vaguely heard of but never fully understood. The description of the MOOCs sounded fascinating––thousands of students taking a single course, many of them for free! But as the presenters pointed out, having thousands of students makes it practically impossible to have one-on-one consultation with each student. While the free MOOCs at a first stage sounds like a great way to address inequality, lack of digital literacy can be an obstacle for many. As Kaveh Waddell, a journalist, described it:

But a bevy of recent research has shown that online learning has largely fallen short of that goal (reducing inequality). The same factors that have held back low-income or minority students in physical classrooms also plague virtual ones. Studies have found that online-learning resources had trouble attracting low-income students—or, in the case of school-age children, their parents—and that those who did participate in online classes performed more poorly than their peers.

There are perhaps several reasons for this. If I may reflect based on my own experiences, I would argue that the students who were able to navigate the academic campus environment before are to a great extent able to do so also in an online environment. There is thus a risk that students who lacks previous experience in academia and does not have the networks that can help them navigate this new environment risks falling behind since the support structure is not there: there are perhaps few clarifications from the teachers, little guidance from administrators, and no direct assistance from librarians. MOOCs and other large-scale learning environments are without a doubt an interesting and necessary development for academic knowledge to spread further than it has previously did. Measures should be taken to tackle digital inequalities so that it can reach even further.  

Getting Started with Online Teaching: Respecting Digital Differences & Learning from Your Elders

This reflective blog post comes at an interesting time for online teaching. The spread of COVID-19 has not only meant that professors at Harvard have had to replace handshakes with ‘elbow bumps’, but also that many classes simply had to be moved online to avoid contact. This move might however not be as simple as many academics think it will be.

 Teaching online might require a broad set of skills and new pedagogical approaches. But more importantly, it will definitely require that teachers and students alike either have, or have the capability to acquire, a certain level of digital literacy — basically meaning that they are able to work, understand, and navigate on various digital platforms. There is truth in that younger students in general can find their way around social media (some, I have noticed, can even scroll through Instagram during my regular lectures AND pay full attention to what I am saying).

Still, just because one knows how to scroll through Instagram, post on Twitter, and make a video on TikTok (if that is what one does, I honestly could not tell you) does not per se means that they will be able to navigate an online teaching environment. The classroom being full of young people does not necessarily mean that the classes simply can be moved online with the expectation that everything will work out just fine. Studies have found that difference in gender, education, cultural and economic levels are associated with various degrees of digital literacy, meaning the level of digital literacy rather depends on who your young students are, not simply that they are young.

Now what does this mean for prospective teachers, including myself, that are stepping into the world of online teaching and learning? I have worked with videos, quizzes, and pre-recorded lectures and many other tools to harness the positive aspects of online and blended learning. I am, however, not an expert on online teaching and digital literacy. Recognizing this is probably the best first step. The second step is to do what all good researchers does when they set out studying a new topic: see what others already have done to address digital literacy, and build on their work.

I am particularly inspired about the work from anthropologist Michael Wesch. In his YouTube video “Teaching without walls: 10 tips for Online Teaching” Wesch shows how one can structure a digital learning environment to avoid unnecessary confusion by using a minimalistic structure of the course room. The video is great, check it out below.

Michel Wesch: Teaching Without Walls: 10 Tips for Online Teaching

Another example of a great and easy to follow structure comes from Jesse Stommel, founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab. Searching through his very interesting (and often entertaining) Twitter-feed, I found a link to his Digital Studies 101 class, which had few links and easy to follow week-by-week instructions the structure is similar to the one Wesch proposes. What I found particularly great about Stommel’s course is his clear, almost laid back, use of language in the course room. This has probably several pedagogical points that I am unaware of, but I think that by introducing the course room and schedule by writing “Here’s what we’ll spend our time doing this term (and space for us to fill with other stuff we decide on together)” removes unnecessary academic jargon that could have been an obstacle for many students.

To summarize, my one tip is this: do what you usually do when you do not know what to do. The great thing about online learning is that the things you are searching for most often is, well, online, and easy to access. By recognizing that moving from the offline to the online brings new challenges, you can also recognize that it brings new opportunities for how to structure a course. I hope that this short blog post has inspired you to see that digital literacy is not to be taken for granted, and that by following the examples of experienced digital educators such as Wesch and Stommel you might just be able to help students follow your online class more easily—how to make them do it without scrolling through Instagram at the same time will have to be a topic for another blogpost. 

Note: This blog post was written for the ONL-Community about online participation and digital literacy.