Digital warriors – Transforming pedagogy one step at a time

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A Personal reflection for AKO #NPF14LMD Project

Background

I teach interdisciplinary health care ethics online and in a blended learning environment. For the past ten years I have been using the Values Exchange (Vx), a web-based, networked, ethical decision-making platform, for facilitating online debate on ethical issues in practice. This is a small scale, niche, digital technology, developed by former AUT Professor of Health and Social Ethics, David Seedhouse, and currently used by 16 international higher education institutions, mainly in the delivery of health related degree programmes. My prolonged use of the Vx means that is has become a comfortable online place; a familiar space within which to teach, to network and to learn. As part of the AKO #NPF14LMD project embarking upon the Mosomelt cMOOC at the beginning of 2015 was a side step into the abyss, taking me from a place of certainty into the unknown world of digital mobile learning.

Reflecting on this experience helps me to further consider my students as new learners of technology. I now have first hand experience of being presented with new ways of doing and recognising the potential, but then being faced with a gap in understanding of how things work and how I can actualise that potential. I’m mindful of the range of social and digital media my students use on a daily basis and, like me, they are possibly taken to their own abyss through the introduction to them of the Vx, even more so when its use will form part of how they will be assessed.

Reflecting on the first steps towards pedagogical transformation

When looking back on my cMOOC experiences they can be categorised in two ways; the technologies and my own development. On the surface, the cMOOC introduced me to a broad range of digital technologies which included Vine, Vyclone, Bambuser, audioBoom, Twitter, WordPress, and Google Communities, Docs, Hangouts and Cardboard, with a new digital tool being introduced each week. Some of these I will discuss later, as I see real potential for them enhancing my teaching and my students’ learning experiences, through their implementation.

Perhaps of greater impact though, has been the professional and personal development that has taken place this year. On the one hand these developments could be seen as incidental and an aside to the accumulation of tool-specific knowledge but for me the relational deliverables are central to the ongoing transformational process of being a teacher. In essence, to teach one first has to learn; my cMOOC experiences have equipped me with new understandings not only about what I have learned, but how I learn, and how this is the same and different from others’ learning styles. This has illuminated my recognition of the multiple ways of learning. I’ve become more in touch with the ways I learn best and the barriers to learning, as exemplified in this early blog post:

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Figure 1: Reflecting on barriers to my own learning

Sustained digital learning

Given the often low completion rates for online learning courses, actually completing the cMOOC was, in itself, an accomplishment. Three things made ‘sticking with it’ possible. Firstly, having the support of CfLAT, through the provision of mobile devices to undertake the cMOOC, but also in the support provided by CfLAT’s Thom Cochrane whose approach allowed us to explore, try out and learn for (and about) ourselves, rather than simply being ‘instructed’ on how things worked.

Secondly, having a colleagial ‘buddy’ to maintain the digital connection through the weeks and in between our visits from Thom was central. In my case this was Professor Kate Diesfeld. Kate and I had been colleagues for ten years but the time together exploring digital tools brought a new richness to our relationship. Kate was very new to technology, bringing a positive spin to everything we attempted. Kate coined the term ‘Digital warriors’ to describe our community of practice (COP) and our commitment to try anything and everything – by just taking one step at a time. The significance of small achievements in our own personal learning was always celebrated within the COP, with success seen in terms of learner advancement along their own unique learner continuum. To recognise individual learning is something that I have come to value and will take into my own teaching environment.

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Figure 2: Recognising learner specific achievements

Thirdly, and possibly most important (and more difficult in the absence of the first two points), was a mindset of not being afraid to fail. Kate and I laughed about ‘having no shame’, realising that it is through making mistakes and not getting things quite right, that we were presented with the more powerful and memorable learning experiences, as was the case with some of my early Vyclone attempts.

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Figure 3: Not quite getting Vyclone right

With both Kate and I starting the cMOOC feeling much more comfortable with a well prepared lecture, the notion of creating impromptu videos in AUT’s Akoranga student cafeteria was certainly out of our initial comfort zone. However within weeks we were creating these in our own time, thinking not only of how we could use each learned technology to transform our own teaching and learning practices, but reflecting on the ways in which the creation of the small community of practice had enhanced our interactions with one another and our colleagues, as evident in this slightly better produced Vyclone: http://www.vyclone.com/movie/5580d75952e857f905000030

Implemeted digital tools

From the suite of digital tools we were introduced to during the cMOOC, Twitter and Bambuser are the two that I’ve been able to implement immediately. My own assessment, as well as student feedback, suggests that these digital additions have added value to my students’ learning experiences. Somehow the learning environment needs to safely challenge students to embrace new platforms, new tools, new ways of seeing, if they are to cope with the uncertainty and the ever-changing technological landscape in which they will work and live. However, change is challenging for many. There is often a sense of resistence from students who have their time stretched between papers and work and who feel the introduction of new tools is an imposition, and just too hard, as this undergraduate student comments:

“WE DONT HAVE TIME TO LEARN HOW TO USE A NEW WEBSITE AND GO THROUGH PILES OF JUNK AS WELL AS DO 12 HOUR SHIFTS and study for the clinical teacher and study for the ward AND do the TRANSITION to nursing practice paper. It needs to be simpler. easier for the students.”

While traditional learning management systems provide a consistent framework across papers, their content is not always able to be taken with the student upon completion of their degree and they will certainly not use the same systems in their workplaces. There is therefore an argument to find supportive ways to help equip students for the unknown future, using the sorts of digital tools they will likely have access to themselves in their post-university work and lives .Twitter is one such tool.

Twitter

While Twitter seems to have reasonable uptake by young people, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people do not readily see its potential as a teaching and learning tool. I see my teaching role as being not only to facilitate lifelong learning and enhancement of a critical lens for ethical issues, but also to help equip students with tools that they might use in practice in their pursuit of these ends and to foster in them a level of self-confidence to embrace new ways of learning.

My decision to use Twitter in my teaching relates to these goals in that Twitter can be used to not only disseminate actual course content (assessment tips) and also course related content (interesting incidental readings). I also use Twitter to share resources media reports on issues I am personally passionate about (education, animal welfare, aviation) as well as sharing posts to my WordPress blog. My aim is to not only share course related learning resources and opportunities, but to model ways in which I have come to value Twitter so that my students may come to new ways of seeing its potential in their own lives. As part of my ethics teaching I highlight the benefits of open, transparent respectful relationships. Sharing my Twitter feed and including a range of professional and personal tweets helps me to feel like an authentic teacher, and I hope, reflects the values I teach.

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Figure 4: Twitter feed showing variety of posts

Each semester this year students were given my Twitter handle and invited to follow me, however only a small number of students took up this opportunity. Therefore, to ensure equity, all tweeted course related material were also shared via other mechanisms, for instance Blackboard. The relatively small number of student followers may be attributed to a number of reasons. Firstly, the earlier extract of student feedback makes it clear that some students have time pressures and the use of additional digital tools is seen as complicated and possibly, unnecessary. Secondly, it is possible that many students don’t use Twitter. Upon checking the profiles of several following students, showed that many were new to Twitter, possibly only creating their profile after my responding to my general invitation.

Challenges for the delivery of online ethics education.

Teaching interdisciplinary ethics in an online environment is challenging as students may not value ethics education, they may be pressured by their own disciplines to prioritise more clinical papers, or they may struggle with the required critical thinking skills and the lack of ‘hard facts’ that they may be more familiar with. Ethics education is, in part, about challenging assumptions and involves a degree on ‘unlearning’. To learn in the presence of these factors means that in an online learning environment, especially, students are more likely to undergo valuable personal learning when they feel the lecturer is open and approachable. A challenge therefore is, in the absence of face to face teaching, to find ways to project myself in ‘real’ ways, rather than purely as a static provider of course content. While tools such as Google Hangouts provide options for real-time online ‘face to face’ discussions, these are time consuming when the online group sizes are limited and the class roll exceeds 100 students. Bambuser suitably fills this gap.

Bambuser

Bambuser provides a live stream with opportunities for synchronous, interactive messaging, as well as creating links for asynchronous access by students. These broadcasts are also linked to my Twitter feed so that all followers (students and others) are automatically notified that live streaming is taking place. I’ve been using Bambuser in a number of ways, including a focus on specific areas of course content and sharing information about assessments.

I am yet to embrace Bambuser’s live messaging function as I feel I need all my enegry to keep on task and remember what I want the broadcast to cover and I don’t have the confidence to also be having students send live questions. However, I do want them to feel able to ask questions and in return receive dynamic responses that the wider class can also benefit from. My solution this past semester has been to use the Vx online survey tool to ask on a weekly basis ‘From the material you’ve accessed this week, what would you like to know more about”. This allows students to raise issues about aspects of the content they are finding difficult to understand but also to seek additional information to extend their learning on topics of specific interest. Responses are then collated and bespoke broadcasts created.

Assessments are often a focus of student anxiety. While I would rather my students focus on learning than just assessment, I recognise that with information, anxiety dissipates so I’ve been using Bambuser to explain assessments and to give background information and tips. For many students ethics is a new subject area or their experience of ethics education is in terms of determining right or wrong actions, whereas rather than looking for objectivity, the philosophy of my teaching follows more of a values-based ideology whereby decisions are deemed ‘good’ if they are well argued and clearly justified. This process involves a combination of reflective introspection and an interdisciplinary ‘outrospection’. The combination of a new subject, perhaps a different and challenging ideology, along with an online learning environment contribute to this sense of assessment anxiety. Bambuser has been very effective in addressing these issues with, for instance 257 views for a broadcast on the first assessment, from a roll of 130 students.

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Figure 5: Bambuser broadcast

Not only do these broadcasts help address student anxiety, they help me feel more connected with my class, and the feedback seems to be positive:

“… first of all I just wanted to say thank you for being so helpful with your online videos that have allowed me to understand the assignment much better and thank you for the way you have provided the students with so much information online in detail that it doesn’t feel like a online course anymore great job”

I personally like Bambuser as it puts me on edge; it reminds me that I’m a digital warrior. It is a live broadcast so one the one hand I feel ever so apprehensive that my broadcast is going out live – to everyone, not just my students, plus, whatever mistakes or fumblings I make will be digitally stored for evermore. However, on the other hand I feel very much more connected with my teaching and helps me to feel a part of my students’ learning. The ‘live-ness’ reminds me of the aspects of our ‘digital warriors’ COP that I value: an importance to embrace authenticity, to be ok about making mistakes and to model this realness to my students. Hopefully there has been a successful transmission of not only information but also an element of myself, as a person and as a teacher, and that, even with mistakes, this has more value than a pre-recorded, edited production. Early indications from students are that this might be so.

Concluding thoughts

When considering my own teaching and learning transformation process, I recognise I am still very much a novice in terms of mobile learning implementations. My efforts to incorporate Twitter and Bambuser into my teaching practices and dabbling with a range of other digital technologies has helped me establish a foundation for ongoing integration into my future teaching. And, as a learner first, I feel well placed to teach others these tools, but without the pressure to have to know it all, or always get it right. Learning involves and requires a supportive environment. For me the cMOOC experience has been about discovery and opportunity. The ‘c’ in cMOOC has come to represent many things: connectivism, conversations, community, collaboration, creativity, coffee and a can-do attitude. They were all present and arguably all necessary for the creation and continuation of such an environment. I look forward to a future of ongoing transformation both for my students’ learning and my own professional development.

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