The Open University has something called an e-learning community. This is a loose group of people who share a common interest in e-learning and the application of information technology for teaching and learning. Since I was visiting the head office at Milton Keynes for a meeting, I thought I would drop into a seminar that took place on 11 July 2012.
This meeting of the e-learning community comprised of two different talks, both very different from each other. The first presentation, by Thomas Strasser, was about e-portfolio systems and how they can be used with teacher training. In some ways, this first talk connected to an earlier HEA event at Birmingham City University which focused on helping people to create an on-line professional presence. The second talk, by Alannah Fitzgerald, was about how corpora can be used to help with language learning. I hope that that through these notes I've done justice to both presentations.
The role of self-organised learning using Mahara
The full title of Thomas Strasser's presentation is, Mighty Mahara: the role of self-organised learning within the context of Mahara ePortfolio at Vienna University of Teacher Education. Mahara (Mahara website) is an open source ePortfolio system which appears to be increasingly used in combination with the Moodle virtual learning environment. One of the reasons for this is likely to be that both systems make use of the same underlying software, PHP.
An ePortfolio system can be described as an on-line tool that can be used as a repository to store documents of work performed and reflections to gain further understandings of a particular subject or topic. I understood that ePortfolios can have different faces: on one hand they can be private (to facilitate personal reflection), or they can be public (to enable the sharing of documents and ideas between different groups). The public dimension can also allow the user to share information about competencies with other people, and this may include potential employers.
During Thomas's presentation, I was introduced to a slightly different (and more nuanced) view of ePortfolios. Apparently three authors called Baumgartner, Himpsl and Zauchner proposed three different types: systems that can be used to facilitate reflection (thoughts on work that has been done), development (thoughts about future directions and plans), and presentation (information about what the user or student can do, or has achieved).
One of the most important points that I've noted is that Thomas argued that teachers need to be digitally literate and be able to appreciate the different situations in which digital media might be used.
One term that was new to me was 'self-organised learning'. Whilst I had not heard of this term before, its intention feels immediately comprehensible. Thomas mentioned that it is connected to recent debates surrounding life-long learning. Four components of self-organised learning were mentioned, a focus on individual strengths and weaknesses, self-reflection (I'm assuming this means on work that has been performed and problems carried out), differentiated systematic reflection (I'm not sure what this means), and documentation (which I understand relates to the creation of documentation, to create evidence).
Why use an ePortfolio? I understand that teacher training is a field where it is necessary to collect a significant amount of documentation and evidence. The one thing that an ePortfolio can do is to replace paper based reports and portfolios, thus helping to unburden the lecturer. The lecturer, however, is not the focus. Instead, the student or learner should be at the centre.
For any on-line tool to be successful its users need to either see or discover its worth. One way to achieve this is to have a lecturer being a 'role model', i.e. using the same tools as the student. An important point was that the popularity of a tool can depend on the enthusiasm of the tutors that are using it; acceptance is something that can take time and institutions may have a role to play in terms of making certain tools obligatory.
Through their ePortfolio system, Thomas's students are encouraged to share a lot of their work and activities with others. The system can store contact information, students can communicate with each other through a reflective blog and can provide peer feedback through task-based reflection. (It was at this point that I thought of the Open University tool, Open Design Studio that is used as a part of the U101 Design Thinking module).
The question and answer session at the end of Thomas's talk raised a number of familiar questions. These include what may happen to an ePortfolio when a student leaves their institution, the extent of difference between an ePortfolio and a website, and the issues of privacy and security.
Addressing academic literacies: corpus-based open educational resources
Alannah Fitzgerald's presentation had a strong connection with the subject of computational linguistics, a subject which I took as a master's module. I understand a corpus to be a set of texts that can be used by researchers to gain an understanding about how language is used. I first learnt of the term when I heard of something called the British National Corpus, or BNC, which is a set of carefully sampled texts which can be used by linguists.
One of the themes of Alannah's presentation was teaching of academic English, particularly to people who know English as their second language. I had never heard of this before, but apparently there is something called an 'academic word list'. This word list has been published by academic publishers with the intention of helping language learners. The word list has apparently been produced by the analysis of a corpus of academic articles.
One of the challenges of creating a corpus is to ensure that it is representative. This means that samples of language use are chosen from different disciplines. Just as in the social sciences, research that presents conclusions from poorly sampled data can be subjected to challenge. Such challenges, of course, can lead to new experiments (or new corpora), which may lead to different results.
Another theme of Alannah's talk was open educational resources (Wikipedia), or OER. OERs are educational resources that anyone can use, free of charge. Over recent years a number of on-line corpora and linguistic tools have become available. Such tools can be used by teachers and student alike, potentially to either augment the use of textbooks, or even to gain different or alternative perspectives.
We were introduced to FLAX, or Flexible Language Acquisition Project, Wordandphrase and Lextutor. Wordandphrase draws upon a corpus called COCA, an abbreviation for Corpus of Contemporary American English. Apparently, one of its really interesting features is that whilst the BNC is a snapshot of language at a particular period of time, COCA is continually being added to, so it represents 'current' language usage. Another interesting corpus is BAWE, an abbreviation for British Academic Written English.
The main point of Alannah's talk was that teachers of English need not be constrained only by the resources that publishers provide. Challenges lie in understanding how the different tools work and how they can fit in and be used within classes (a thought which has been drawn from Thomas's earlier comment that the tutor needs to show how tools could and should be used).
Other resources include BALEAP, which is an organisation dedicated to the professional development of those involved in learning, teaching, scholarship and research in English for Academic Purposes (EAP). Another site that was mentioned being Teacher Training Videos.
I enjoyed both presentations. Regarding the presentation about ePortfolios I do sense that their success in an institution or a course of study will heavily depend on how the advantages of such tools are conveyed to students. People only use tools if they are perceived to yield some kind of benefit or have a clear purpose (or if you have to use them to gain scores that contribute towards an assessment). One issue that remains is the unknown consequences of sharing or whether what we write will be 'googleable' and come back to haunt us.
I particularly enjoyed Alannah's talk since the subjects that she spoke about were very different to my current research interest (which is becoming to be more about the history of computing). What was great (for me) was that it brought back memories of old studies and reminders of tools I had looked at many years ago (such as WordNet).
Alannah's talk also made me wonder about whether it might be possible, or in fact, useful to create to create a corpus of computer programs, which may have the potential to help us to learn more about the ways that software developers perceive and understand different types of software. Much food for thought.