Strategies for successful learning at AU

Earlier today I responded to a prospective student who was, amongst other things, seeking advice on strategies for success on a couple of our self-paced programming courses. My response was just a stream of consciousness off the top of my head but I think it might be useful to others. Here, then, with some very light editing to remove references to specific courses, are a few fairly random thoughts on how to succeed on a self-paced online programming course (and, for the most part, other courses) at Athabasca University. In no particular order:

  • Try to make sure that people close to you know what you are doing and, ideally, are supportive. Other people can really help, not just for the mechanical stuff but for the emotional support. Online learning, especially the self-paced form we use, can feel a bit isolating at times, but there are lots of ways to close the gap and they aren’t all found in the course materials and processes. Find support wherever you can.
  • Make a schedule and try to keep to it, but don’t blame yourself if your deadlines slip a bit here and there – just adjust the plan. The really important thing is that you should feel in control of the process. Having such control is one of the huge benefits of our way of teaching, but you need to take ownership of the process yourself in order to experience the benefits.
  • If the course provides forums or other social engagement try to proactively engage in them. Again, other people really help.
  • You will have way more freedom than those in traditional classrooms, who have to follow a teacher simply because of the nature of physics. However, that freedom is a two-edged sword as you can sometimes be swamped with choices and not know which way to go. If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask for help. But do take advantage of the freedom. Set your own goals. Look for the things that excite you and explore further. Take breaks if you are getting tired. Play. Take control of the learning process and enjoy the ride.
  • Enjoy the challenges. Sometimes it will be hard, and you should expect that, especially in programming courses like these. Programming can be very frustrating at times – after 35 years of programming I can still spend days on a problem that turns out to involve a misplaced semi-colon! Accept that, and accept that even the most intractable problems will eventually be solved (and it is a wonderful feeling when you do finally get it to work). Make time to sleep on it. If you’re stuck, ask for help.
  • Get your work/life/learning balance right. Be realistic in your aspirations and expect to spend many hours a week on this, but make sure you make time to get away from it.
  • Keep a learning journal, a reflective diary of what you have done and how you have addressed the struggles, even if the course itself doesn’t ask for one. There are few more effective ways to consolidate and connect your learning than to reflect on it, and it can help to mark your progress: good to read when your motivation is flagging.
  • Get used to waiting for responses and find other things to learn in the meantime. Don’t stop learning because you are waiting – move on to something else, practice something you have already done, or reflect on what you have been doing so far.
  • Programming is a performance skill that demands constant and repeated practice. You just need to do it, get it wrong, do it again, and again, and again, until it feels like second nature. In many ways it is like learning a musical instrument or maybe even driving. It’s not something you can learn simply by reading or by being told, you really have to immerse yourself in doing it. Make up your own challenges if you run out of things to do.
  • Don’t just limit yourself to what we provide. Find forums and communities with appropriate interests. I am a big fan of StackOverflow.com for help and inspiration from others, though relevant subreddits can be useful and there are many other sites and systems dedicated to programming. Find one or two that make sense to you. Again, other people can really help.

Online learning can be great fun as long as you are aware of the big differences, primarily relating to control and personal agency. Our role is to provide a bit of structure and a supportive environment to enable you to learn, rather than to tell you stuff and make you do things, which can be disconcerting at first if you are used to traditional classroom learning. This puts more pressure on you, and more onus on you to organize and manage your own learning, but don’t ever forget that you are not ever really alone – we are here to help.

In summary, I think it really comes down to three big things, all of which are really about motivation, and all of which are quite different when learning online compared to face-to-face:

  1. Autonomy – you are in control, but you must take responsibility for your own learning. You can always delegate control to us (or others) when the going gets hard or choices are hard to make, but you are always free to take it back again, and there will be no one standing over you making you do stuff apart from yourself.
  2. Competence – there are few things more satisfying than being able to do more today than you could do yesterday. We provide some challenges and we try to keep them difficult-but-achievable at every stage along the way, but it is a great idea for you to also seek your own challenges, to play, to explore, to discover, especially if the challenges we offer are too difficult or too boring. Reflection can help a lot with this, as a means to recognize what, how, and why you have learned.
  3. Relatedness – never forget the importance of other people. You don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to do so (that’s another freedom we offer), but it is at the very least helpful to think about how you belong in our community, your own community, and the broader community of learners and programmers, and how what and how you are learning can affect others (directly or indirectly).

This advice is by no means comprehensive! If you have other ideas or advice, or things that have worked for you, or things that you disagree with, do feel free to share them in the comments.

Higher Education Whisperer: MIT For Credit edX Course Shows How to Market e-Learning

Great critique by Tom Worthington of an alleged for-credit MOOC from MIT that was anything but a MOOC. As Tom rightly points out, two instructors, 31 students, and online materials from EdX do not a MOOC make. As he notes, this kind of instructional process has been working pretty well for decades, including at Athabasca, as it happens. What is relatively novel, perhaps, is that the fact that the course itself was supplied at no (extra) cost to the institution. Effectively (though not quite in this case as it was an MIT course in the first place) this was a typical use of an OER course with accreditation and tuition wrapped around it, following a practice that has been common in many places – especially in developing countries – since the earliest MOOCs in 2008. Tom himself has created a great OER course on green computing that we use here at AU, which follows much the same pattern (though we have lightly adapted the Australian course for local use).

Less stress in online learning?

Tom observes that in this intervention, as in his own teaching, students tend to take the online option due to scheduling difficulties, not by preference, but that they are less stressed by the process than their face-to-face counterparts. This makes sense because there’s a lot more teaching presence in a course that is a) designed for online delivery (usually with great care and attention to detail) and b) supported by live teachers. Online learners in this kind of set-up are getting a huge amount of support for their learning, both from course designers/developers and from their own professors. Technically speaking, some of that exuberance of teaching will cancel out due to the inevitable tension between structure and dialogue implied by transactional distance theory, but the opportunities for feedback on coursework, at least, more than compensate for the high transactional distance caused by the industrial teaching approach of a pre-prepared online course. At least, I hope so, because (though mainly with courses we have developed ourselves and only rarely with OERs) this is exactly what Athabasca University has been doing for nearly 50 years, apparently with some success.

More stress in online teaching?

Personally, I have to admit, I normally hate teaching other people’s courses, although it is something I have often done. However well-developed they might be, there are always things I disagree with, factually and pedagogically, and I deeply dislike the strait jackets such structured courses create. This is perhaps a little hypocritical of me because I expect tutors on my courses to do exactly that, and routinely allocate my own faculty to teach courses that others have written, putting them in exactly that position. Whatever. Few seem to suffer my aversion to the same degree and many seem to positively relish it. I guess it makes it easier, with fewer choices to make. To each their own. But even I am very happy to take an existing OER (like Tom’s) and alter it to my own purposes, and am even happier to offer alternative OERs for my students to use within a pedagogical framework I have created. I think this is just common sense, giving both me and my students plenty of freedom to do what suits us best. Either way, re-use of existing well-designed courses is at least as great an idea as it was when Otto Peters came up with his industrial model of distance learning some decades ago.

The reputation of online learning

Tom notes that online and distance education has a bad reputation: to some extent, yes, sure, some people feel that way. Yes, there have been some bad examples of the modality that have resulted in bad press (ahem…Phoenix) and naive folk that have never experienced online learning do tend to believe that there is some magic that happens face to face that cannot be replicated online. They are right, as it happens: some things are difficult or impossible to replicate and it is a kind of magic. But the converse is also true – great things happen online that cannot be replicated face to face, and that’s a kind of magic too. And, just as not everyone gets a great online experience,  for many ‘face to face’ learners the experience is uniformly dire, with large impersonal lectures, ill-conceived pedagogies delivered by untrained teachers, and considerably less human interaction than what would typically be found online. On balance, while it is not quite correct to say that there is no significant difference, because there really are some basic differences in the need for self-management and control, there is no significant difference in the outcomes we choose to measure.

But, to return to the point, although some look upon online degrees less kindly, there are many employers who actively prefer those that have learned online because it is strong proof of their self-determination, will-power, and desire to succeed. I can confirm this positive perception: our students at AU are, on average, streets ahead of their traditionally taught counterparts, especially when you consider that a great many do not have the traditional qualifications needed to get into a conventional institution. I am constantly amazed by the skill and perseverance of our amazing students. On my own courses, especially in graduate teaching, I do everything I can to enable them to teach one another, because they tend to come to us with an incredible wealth of knowledge that just needs to be tapped and channelled.

A workable model

Though Tom is a little critical, I see value in what MIT is doing here. For some years now I have been trying to make the case at AU that we should be offering support for, and the means to credential, MOOCs offered elsewhere. This would give freedom to students to pick ways of learning that suit them best, to gain the benefits of diversity, and allow us to provide the kind of tutorial support and accreditation that we are pretty good at, at only a fraction of the (roughly) $100K cost of developing a typical course. It would give us the freedom to extend our offerings quite considerably, and avoid the need to keep developing the same curricula that are found everywhere else, so that we could differentiate ourselves by not just the style of teaching but also the subjects that we offer. This can in principle be done to some extent already through our challenge process (if you can find an equivalent course, take it, then take our challenge paper for a lot less than the price of a full course) and we do have independent study courses at graduate level that can be used much this way, with tutor support. But we could make a lot more of it if we did it just a bit more mindfully.

Address of the bookmark: http://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2017/06/mit-for-credit-edx-course-shows-how-to.html

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Why do we not ban use of cellphones in online learning?

Banning mobile phones is cargo cult science is a good, laudably brief, dismissive, critical review of the dangerously-reported recently published study by the London School of Economics that, amongst other things, shows a correlation between banning of mobile phones in schools and improved grades. As the title of the post suggests, the report does not show that banning mobile phones in schools is what improves grades in any way at all, despite the fact that the report writers do seem to believe that this is what they have shown: indeed, they recommend banning mobile phones as a cost effective measure to improve grades! That is so opposite to the obvious conclusion it is not even funny. To me, it shows a terrible failure at a massive systemic level. It’s not cellphone use that’s the problem – it’s the teaching. More precisely, it’s the system of teaching. I am sure that the vast majority of individual teachers are doing wonders, under extremely adverse circumstances. But they are doing so in a completely broken system. 

The interesting thing for me is that this would never come up as an issue for online and distance learners. Well, almost never: perhaps occasionally, study guides might recommend you set aside undistracted time for some (not all) kinds of study and webinar leaders might suggest that participants switch off phones and other distractions. But this is only at most a bit of practical advice, not an edict.

The point here is that command-and-control teaching methods of traditional classrooms have no meaning or relevance in online learning. This makes it all the more odd that we continue to see substantially the same pedagogies being used for online teaching as those found in the over-controlling environment of teacher-led classrooms. Obvious culprits like lecture-based MOOCs are just the more visible tip of this weird bit of skeuomorphism but the general principle runs across the board from instructivist textbooks through more enlightened uses of social constructivist methods in discussion forums. Too often, implicitly or explicitly, we act under the illusion that how we teach is how people learn, as though we still had students trapped in a classroom, controlling (almost literally) their every move.  The unholy and inseparable continued twinning of fixed-length courses and the use of grades to drive student progress is very much to blame, though a lack of imagination doesn’t help. These technologies evolved because of the physics of classrooms, not because they are good ways to support learning. In almost every way, they are actually antagonistic to learning. Online learning can, does and should liberate learners, giving them control. So let’s stop teaching them as though we were the ones in charge. It is crazy that we should voluntarily shackle ourselves when there is absolutely no need for it.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.educate1to1.org/banning-mobile-phone-is-cargo-cult-science/